For the past five years, I have been on a roller coaster ride through the world of self-publishing. In that time period, I have written more than 50 books, had 15 best sellers, broke the top 200 of Amazon’s chart, sold almost a million books, and nearly gone bankrupt.
The journey, which has been one of sublime elation and crushing disappointment, has given me a unique perspective on this industry. In the hopes of sparing you first-hand education in some of the lows along the way, I would like to offer the following words of wisdom for those seeking to make it as a self-published writer.
Write from Your Heart, Market from Your Head
The most generic of all writing advice is to write from your heart. Go on any forum and you will see this drilled into every young hopeful.
While it is true that the muse leaves us if we do not listen, it is also true that listening too much yields abstract pet projects. You may have a deep love for a particular story, but you need to make sure that whatever story you have to tell is actually marketable. In other words, your protagonist isn’t Satan and their goals aren’t reprehensible—well, unless your target audience loves an antihero, that is!
Try to find a middle ground between what your heart wants and what the market will bear. Yes, there is a market and there are expectations for writers. Ignoring this basic fact is what leads to the majority of jaded, hateful, and disappointed writers that are out there.
You have to know both what the public is looking for, what you have, and how to communicate what you have to that public.
It’s not enough to tell an interesting or compelling story—you must also tell people that it exists. That takes research, testing, and perseverance.
Yet most writers simply do not do any of this and instead opt to believe that their passion for the project will obviously stir passion in others.
But how do we share our passion if no one knows it exists?
Be Prepared for Failure—But Also for Success
Along my journey, I have been blessed to help many other writers in theirs. These writers could be divided into two groups: those that are sure of their success, and those that are sure of their failure.
Those who are confident in their abilities usually have awful work and refuse to listen to criticism, while those who agonize over their manuscripts often have the best story to tell.
Most days, I probably fall somewhere in the middle, as do you, but the point is that people either prepare for the worst or the best, yet hardly ever does anyone prepare for the matter of fact.
Launching a book to mild success is nothing to sneeze at. Heck, launching a book at all is an accomplishment!
However, the process requires that we treat everything as if our book is going to change the world—all while, in the back of our minds, setting down pillows to cushion the inevitable failure.
The truth is that we never know how the public will respond to our work, so the only thing we can do is treat our craft with the respect that it deserves. Anything less is selling the piece, and yourself, short.
What Worked Before Will Not Necessarily Work Again
The internet is filled to the brim with publishing formulas, secrets, and templates for success. Some should be listened to, such as the site so generously hosting this article, while others should be ignored.
Ignored not because the people behind the information have ill intentions, but rather because what worked for them may not necessarily work for you.
Writing is by its very nature subjective, and no piece can ever appeal to the totality of humanity. Therefore, marketing and strategies applied to something subjective must also vary on an individual basis.
In other words, you cannot market a children’s book in the same manner that you market a self-help book. Sure, there are elements everyone needs to get right: copy, cover, metadata, editing, tone, etc., but the other elements, the artistic touch, differ radically from piece to piece.
Instead of following a formula, pledge to learn as much as you can about your genre, your competition, and your audience. Your goal should be to become the writer that the gurus model their seminars on.
The edge of a blade knows nothing but what it’s cutting through; likewise, a nimble and high-performing author is constantly interacting with the market rather than analyzing what has been done.
Besides, the one certain thing in this world is change. Amazon appeared overnight and it may disappear overnight. Programs that once worked like a charm may now fail. Bookbub used to be just another email list, and now it’s considered a must-have for great marketing.
We never know what will come next or what we will lose. The only thing you can rely on is your adaptability and your craft. Everything else is just an opinion from the past projecting into the future.
Treat Yourself, and Your Time, Like a Business
Another standard piece of writing advice is to schedule your time and stick to it. You have to show up, so to speak, in order to get the writing done.
Rarely do I see this elaborated on, though. Anything that you want to extract an income from will require something from you in return. I get a kick out of people who want free covers and then expect someone else to pay for their final book…but I digress.
In order for you to make something of value, you have to contribute your time to seek out, make, and refine what you will offer. Writing gold is about as difficult and time-consuming as finding it in the earth. Perhaps that is a little overwrought, but the point is that anything easily accessed is worthless.
You have to structure your life to provide the time and the energy necessary to excavate a living from the work. Be it marketing, research, writing, business, or any of the other tasks indie authors perform, we need to be constantly putting effort into the machine without expectation.
Business isn’t for everyone, and neither is writing. If you want a one-to-one ratio of time to money, then you need to stick with a day job. Until you can happily say that you’ll work 40 hours with a possibility of getting nothing in return, you’re not actually committed to this.
This business mindset extends to your family and your friends. Be jealous of your time and schedule it just like you would anything else. Writers are one of a few creative professions that people simply do not respect. No one would barge in on a lawyer studying, but they would happily override your writing time to address their problems.
Don’t let it happen. Treat everything seriously as you would a business—that is, if you hope to see a business-like return on your investment.
You Don’t Know What People Like About Your Work—Neither Do They
Once you have a few successes under your belt, you will be tempted to declare yourself the king of whatever it is you think you are known for.
While it’s true that modern writers need to brand themselves in a particular genre, movement, or tone, it’s also true that much of the branding is contributed by the readers themselves. You want to allow your audience to contribute to your platform rather than shouting at them what you are all about.
After all, what if you are wrong? What if what you think your work is about really isn’t?
I spent the first few years calling myself “the monster guy” only to find out from my readers that they didn’t link me to monsters, or any one creation in particular. Rather, they just liked my morals and my sense of humor. That’s it.
What if I had dropped the morals but kept the monsters? Would I have kept my audience?
That brings me to my next point: the audience doesn’t really understand your work either. They may be able to tell you features that they like such as the characters or the illustrations, but they can never tell you why they chose your version over someone else’s.
That’s because taste lies in the gestalt, the sum of the whole, rather than the parts. Any attempt to analyze the components breaks the gestalt and is nothing more than an educated guess.
Steve Jobs famously said that if he had asked what people wanted in a cellphone, they would have told him bigger keyboards. Your work is much the same.
The only thing you can do is listen to what people have to say and take their council against what your heart says. No matter what, remain true to your core—that’s the only way to move forward.
Your Success Does Not Depend on What Others Have Done
Name any income you can think of and someone out there is making that much money selling books right now. There are authors making over ten grand a day—and there are authors, even traditionally published ones, who haven’t made that in their entire career.
Like everything else in life, you cannot judge yourself against the lives of others. Sure, you can ask for advice, follow their example, and replicate their success to the best of your abilities, but at the end of the day, you are still missing the majority of life experience that made that person who they are.
Your path is your own. You and you alone have to walk it. The more we try to walk someone else’s path, the more we stumble on our own.
You are not meant to be J.K. Rowling, because she already exists. You are meant to be someone else, and your contributions to the world are unknown until they are made.
Weigh yourself only against your own goals and expectations and even then, weigh them with a gentle touch. Our dreams are always larger than what life can handle, yet reality has a way of surprising us.
Be as Flexible as Possible
Children’s books have been very good to me. However, there may come a time soon when I need to say goodbye. Not because I don’t love what I have done, but because something else called me away.
Had I defined my sense of worth on the success of my creations, I would have lost my mind a long time ago. Be open to the possibility that all of this is simply an exercise to get you to where you actually need to be. I’ve met illustrators that were once writers, writers that were once mechanics, and travel agents that were once programmers.
Don’t lock yourself down to only one result, one accomplishment, or one gift. Life is about the journey and the work that we do along the way.
Besides, the most interesting people I’ve ever met have much to say and are yet to start writing, while the writers who only write have nothing to say.
What lessons have you learned during your writing journey? Share in the comments!
About the Author
A.J. Cosmo is the writer and illustrator of over 50 children’s books including the best-selling The Monster That Ate My Socks and I Don’t Want to Go to School. Visit him at www.ajcosmo.com or say hi at [email protected].
For more on being a successful indie author, check out these articles:
- How I Finally Published My First Historical Romance Novel After Forty Years
- How to Turn Adversity into Art: Follow Your Gut, Make Mistakes, and Write More
- How I Went from Full-Time Freelance Writer to Self-Published Novelist