Self-publishing is not for every writer. In order to succeed, you need to have or develop specific traits, along with certain ways of approaching the publication of a book. Consider the following questions.
1. Are you positive and proactive?
Many writers wait for permission from an agent or publisher to say they are fit for publication—or for a PR campaign to explain why somebody should buy their book. The flip side of this passivity is chronic complaint syndrome: writers moaning about the vagaries of agents or publishers, about the death of bookstores, the dominance of Amazon, etc.
Not independent authors. You must take responsibility for the risks, as well as the rewards, of publishing your own work.
2. Are you brave?
Risk is the core activity of self-publishing. You must risk time on ideas, promotions, or concepts that may come to naught. You must risk money to pay for editorial and design upfront. You must also risk, in some circles, reputation. Family, friends, and many others may see self-publishing as a second-best option. Independent authors must put themselves out there twice over, once in the writing, again in the publishing.
3. Are you hardworking?
If there’s one quality that all successful independent authors have in common, this is it. You must be full of energy and commitment, not only to your writing but to educating yourself about all aspects of craft, editing, design, and promotion. You must recognize opportunities and make the most of them, without derailing your writing, the engine of it all.
4. Are you entrepreneurial?
Independent authors who do best have an entrepreneurial mindset. You must always be on the lookout for new ways to reach readers, new communities who might be interested in your books, new opportunities to get your message out. You should be a savvy user of social media and know how to engage resources like e-mail lists, newsletters, promotions, competitions, and book giveaways to extend your readership. You must be open to failure and willing to learn from mistakes, while excited by the prospect of new projects and creative collaborations.
5. Are you resilient?
Successful self-publishers, by definition, are those who have kept on keeping on, adapting where necessary, and following their hearts. Mark McGuinness says in his new book, Resilience: Facing Down Rejection and Criticism on the Road to Success, in going indie, you must ensure you haven’t exchanged traditional forms of rejection and criticism for others that can be just as painful and costly. “Anyone who says, ‘Don’t take it so personally’ doesn’t understand what it’s like when you are hit by a major rejection or biting criticism,” says Mark. “Successful indies have found ways to acknowledge the pain—and bounce back from the impact.”
6. Do you base decisions on research?
You must follow gut feelings and intuitions, yes, but successful self-published authors generally back such horse sense with researched facts and figures to stay smart, sharp, and up to date—to search out their readers, stay in touch with influencers in their field, and give their books an advantage. Whether it’s keyword research, marketing studies, direct mail tests or just dear old Professor Google, you should enjoy learning, growing, and getting it right.
7. Do you have good financial sense?
Successful self-publishers don’t tend to be the kind of writers who say, “I don’t care about money,” unless they have a benefactor or obliging day job. Controlling costs is important for all businesses, and you must be able to take care of your resources and make sure you spend money where it will produce the biggest effect.
8. Are you collaborative and supportive?
That literary communities can be a tad, shall we say, bitchy, is well known—but the camaraderie between successful self-published authors is outstanding. Indies are likely to work from the co-opetition model, where competitors cooperate for mutual benefit.
Answering yes so far? Good—you’re half way there. With those personality traits in place, it is necessary to work them in a certain way in order to succeed in self-publishing.
9. Have you tried to find an agent or publisher?
Yes, great books can fail to make it through the gatekeeping process, especially books that are literary, or unusual, or in genres that the industry does not perceive as selling well. On the other hand, many books fail to find an agent or publisher because the writing isn’t ready for publication. The process of trying to get through the gates—taking the rejection, learning and applying the lessons, mastering your craft over time—is often a necessary one, if you want to get real about what’s involved in putting together a book worth reading.
10. Have you made a plan for copyediting, formatting, cover design, and ISBNs?
There’s more to making a book than writing it. Have you taken on board all the functions you will need to master if you are to successfully self-publish? They are all very much learn-by-doing activities, but you need to be realistic about the time and energy commitment.
11. Have you thought about your team?
Just because it’s called self-publishing doesn’t mean you’ll do everything yourself. You will need to draw on the services of some or all of the following: critique groups, beta readers, designers, editors, formatters, and promotional services. Have you at least begun to research how you will approach your workflow, and who you will use to deliver the services you need?
12. Do you understand your niche?
Niche markets addressing special interests are often seen as too unprofitable to be of interest to trade publishing. These overlooked niches is where many indie authors prosper. Even if you’re not that niche, to succeed as an indie you need to go where your readers are, which means understanding your place within the reading ecosystem.
13. Do you know who your reader is?
Some authors become self-publishers because they are recognised experts, or to enhance their standing in their field, or to justify an increase in their fees. Some they are committed to a cause, or have a story that just has to be told.
Regardless of your primary motive for writing, you must have a marketer‘s sensibility. You may not use marketing terms, but you will not survive, never mind thrive, if you are not attuned to the needs of your readership or don’t communicate with them. You will need to to go where most of your readers are most likely to be found online, to their forums and blogs, and make it your business to understand their concerns.
14. Do you have a marketing plan—a plan to reach readers?
Book sales happen only if you make them happen. How are you going to make people aware of your book? How will you make them interested? How will you find your audience?
15. Have you made a plan for your next book?
Are you using a self-published book to attract an agent or trade publisher? Or do you want to keep your own rights and grow your own audience, long term? To make the smartest choices possible, you should have a goal or strategy that extends past your first book.
If you’re considering the self-publishing path, then I recommend taking a look at the annual guide from the Alliance of Independent Authors: Choosing a Self-Publishing Service 2013. The guide compares twenty of the most significant publishing services, in terms of price, royalties, and terms. Click here to preview or sample on Amazon.
Orna Ross is a bestselling Irish author, living in London. She writes novels, poems and nonfiction and her Go Creative blog teaches methods of applying the creative process to all aspects of life. Orna has enjoyed independent self-publishing and publication by Attic Press and Penguin.