Lessons Learnt from Self Publishing

6th June 2022

A collection of advice, tips, and tricks.

While writing up Soul Relic, I reached out to a lot of authors for their advice in getting the novel off the ground.

Thanks to John Bierce, Bryce O’Connor, Phil Tucker, J.R. Mathews, Tobias Begley, Travis M. Riddle, and everyone I’ve also pestered on reddit.

Some of this is obvious, others not as much. Here’s a rough timeline of how I would go about things if I had to start over.

Full disclosure here: I am a debut author. I am not an expert, and if someone with more experience reads this and thinks “No, no, no, you should do this instead,” please reach out to me so I can update this write-up and learn something along the way.

1. Write a draft

Alright this is pretty obvious. For me this involves deeper and deeper outlines until I write the actual prose, but write however works for you.

2. Get a professional developmental and line edit done

Find an editor (tip: the books you most like probably thank their editors in the acknowledgements section). They will probably be busy for the next few months, so contact them before your draft is finished. Assume around three month wait time, then they can do your book. Assume several months worth of rewrites and edits after that.

3. Presentation is key

Find a great cover artist. For progression fantasy, cover art should ideally be character driven. You can find great character artists on /r/CharacterDrawing, and /r/HungryArtists, or on the compilation I’ve made of artists right here. Then reach out to someone for typography, and get that done properly too.

Many artists and illustrators have long wait times. Allow at least six months from reaching out to getting back something finalised. I’d reach out to artists the same time you reach out to an editor.

4. Beta readers and ARC readers are essential

Don’t use friends and family for thoughts. After you’ve got something editted and you’ve cleaned it up:

  1. Send to alpha readers if you have any (can also be done prior to editing)
  2. Send to beta readers (can find some using reddit)
  3. Send to arc readers. Use a service like BookFunnel for this, and grab emails so you can request reviews.

Allow around two months for each step.

5. Setup an email list

Use MailChimp or something similar. At the same time as you sign up for MailChimp, buy an author domain. You can do this also with MailChimp, or you can go external. The reason this is important, is without a custom domain (like sam@hinton.com), MailChimp’s email address looks spammy, and very often gets classified as spam.

Here is what happened to me, for a great “Don’t be like this”

  • Have all my ARC readers on an audience in MailChimp
  • Create an email with my Kindle listing asking for reviews, and have to send it out ASAP.
  • Send a test email to myself… it gets marked as spam.
  • Send a test email to my wife. Also ends up in spam.
  • Google around for why. Discover I need to set up SPF records on a custom name to allow MailChimp to send as me and not look like spam.
  • Discover my current domain provider is scammy and doesn’t offer proper email support.
  • Try to swap my domain provider to Google Domains, but get a Business ID error.
  • Google around and figure out .com.au domains need to be linked to an active Australian Business Number (ABN). Mine expired the prior month.
  • Go to the Aus government site to re-apply for an ABN. Get told this can take up to 20 days. Domain transfer is then another week.
  • Realise waiting a month is too long, download the email list, and just do it all manually.
  • Get a response from two ARC readers (thanks Setia and William), saying they can’t leave reviews on the ebook pre-order.
  • Realise I’ve spent so much time to manually email everyone a useless link.
  • Cry.

Save yourself the pain, get a custom email domain.

6. Decide if you want to get reviews in prior to launch or not.

I made a big mistake reaching out to my arc readers too early (and sending them a bad link). Many that tried to leave a review initially got rejected by Amazon and didn’t manage to leave a review. I think if I did this again, I would just send a single email as soon as the book is available and ask for reviews to be left on day one. Out of my 75 arc readers, only two managed to leave a review on Amazon, which is not an ideal return.

7. Submit your book to KDP.

Don’t fret about this step too much, you can change everything up until three days before your launch. However, you can only change your launch date once, so keep that in mind. Find some good keywords (probably using PublisherRocket), and don’t worry about the categories. You’ll want to do update the categories using this method here anyway, so don’t worry about them in the Kindle setup. You’ll get your ebook listing page after doing this step.

8. Oh no, my ARC readers can’t leave a review

FUN fact, but pre-order ebook listings are not eligible for reviews.

Wish I knew that going in. Phil Tucker offers the following solution, and I can confirm it works. Here’s what you do:

  1. Create a paperback version. In addition to your ebook, create a paperback release. Follow all the steps, make a cover (don’t worry about the back page and spine being blank), and wait the hours until Amazon makes it live. Once it’s live, it creates a listing page, that will (in another few hours), link with your ebook page. This page is permanent (as a third party might sell your paperback in the future, not just Amazon)
  2. Unpublish your paperback. As soon as you have the listing page (which will have your cover, blurb, and the paperback with whatever price you put down), copy the link. Confirm you’ve copied out the paperback link by checking the title has “Paperback” at the end, or that the product details on the page has things like Item Weight and Dimensions, which your ebook won’t have, and it will have an ASIN. Keep the link to this page safe. Here’s what my paperback link is, notice the ASIN at the end of the URL, compared to my ebook link. If you lose this link, no issues, you can always see your ASIN in KDP (shown below) so you can determine the URL. Anyway, go back into KDP, and Unpublish your paperback. Screenshot of before and after for you.

  1. Share the paperback link. Now, people should be able to leave a review on the paperback listing, which is shared with the ebook listing.

Very stupid to have to jump through the hoops.

9. Write down all the social media groups

Whether its reddit subs, FB groups, discord servers, etc, make a list of all of them which are relevant to your book, and record their self-promo rules. Normally this means including a backlink in your book to the group, and then getting pre-approval. Get this pre-approval a week or so before you want to post.

10. Set up ads

If you decide to run ads, then set them up now. I went Kindle only because I’m lazy. You’ll need to link credit card, and then set up some campaigns. As of writing this, I have a bunch of different campaigns (a mix of manual targets, automatic targets, price points, etc). I’ll update this when can I actually see what is more effective.

But one initial tip: don’t set them to start on your launch date. Ads can take a few days to ramp up, especially automatic ads to learn how to place your book. I haven’t tried this, but if I was doing it again I’d probably set a small 10USD/day budget for a few days prior to launch to help train the ads, and then when the book launches increase this to 50USD/day for a few days.

As to why this is important, well, I had saved up some money and wanted to spend it to kickstart the book launch. This is three days in, with a massive 600USD/day budget. Out of that So 1800USD all up was the ad spend limit. And here is the report breakdown: 0 sales, 81 cents in ad spend. Goodbye strong launch, hello slow launch.

This was incredibly frustrating. Apparently the reports page is also inaccurate, so initially I was hopeful I did manage to reach out to a larger audience. The monthly bill came in days later, and the report, which said 81c, was indeed wrong. I had actually spend 2USD. Amazing.

I have no idea about the effectiveness of FB ads. I have heard lots of people on the 20BooksTo50K FB group talk about how amazing TikTok is for sales and awareness. I don’t have TikTok. I don’t want TikTok. I should probably get TikTok… but at the end of the day, I’m pretty much at my limit for social media already and I don’t want to burn myself out as an author doing all the non-writing things I hate. So approach the marketing side in whatever fashion works for you, just make sure you don’t come out of it a shrunken husk of a human being.

11. Release!

Make posts to your subs and groups. Picture posts, not links. People like pictures, but the links and blurb in the comments. Request reviews from your ARC readers. Cross your fingers for good reviews. Stress massively for the first week. Ensure you decide to write the follow up book even if the launch isn’t amazing. Bury your despair, and soldier on. Hope some of your readers sign up to your email mailing list, which you should link at the end of the book after requesting a review.

Go back to step one, and repeat for the next book.