10 Things I Learned About Self-Publishing

In 2020 I decided to self-publish my first book – a middle grade children’s historical fantasy called Smailholm. The book is based on the real tower of the same name in the Scottish Borders, and an imagined village of miniature people that lived beneath it. It’s been described (not by me, but a reader) as The Borrowers meets The Hobbit meets Alice in Wonderland.

Anyway, now you know about the book, here’s what I learned along the way on my journey to self-publish it. I'll start by saying that although it was one of the most rewarding things I've ever done, it was also one of the hardest. And I have a long list of really stressful jobs behind me. Perhaps publishing a book any which way is one of the hardest things you'll ever do. But as of yet I've not gone down the traditional route. Although I'm trying to do that now. And the only way I can describe that is like sticking pins into your eyeballs. Although I'm only part way down the traditional route (e.g. I have an agent and my book is out on submission) I reckon it's a pretty close call between them in the Squid game of "this is a really painful way to die".

For all those looking to self-publish or even go down the traditional route, these titbits may help. Buckle up, publishing a book, is a wild ride. Whichever way you look at it.

1. The hybrid model has its pros and cons
I chose to go down a hybrid route with Matador. They are a reputable UK self-publishing imprint under the Troubador publishing brand. Troubador run a yearly self-publishing conference in Leicester, and I attended and picked up some great tips and met some great people. Basically, you as the self-publisher, pay to utilise their established professional publishing services such as book editing, cover design, printing, publication to their list and a whole host of marketing and sales services. You receive the full royalty, minus any costs associated with launching and publishing the book. They have many optional services that you can buy into as an author. Many of the services I chose were of excellent quality. I chose for them to publish to Amazon for me. It’s not like I couldn’t do it myself but I wanted to make sure I got it right, the first time. Of the whole process, this was my biggest regret because I subsequently had no control over the listing and they don’t offer Amazon ads as part of their package. And it’s very difficult to make anything work on Amazon without paid advertising!

2. Paying for an editor and book cover designer paid dividends
I really don’t know how people manage without a professional editor and book cover designer. I couldn’t have. Here’s a link to my professional editor Gary Dalkin. There are not enough superlatives to describe how much he helped me make Smailholm what it is. As my first book, I was a very inexperienced writer. It was a mess when he first got his hands on it, and even though there's things I would change about it now, he helped steer it in the right direction. Equally the book cover designer was one of my best investments. I chose Holly Dunn Design. I’d admired her covers from afar on bookstagram and thought her style would really suit my fantasy book. She is well known on bookstagram and as a result I’ve no doubt many people just purchased my book for her art! 

3. I targeted the luxury book market
I focused the book on the luxury market. I work with luxury goods in my day job and to make small quantities work via the ecommerce route you need a luxury good and what we call in the business a high order value. So I chose a cloth-bound, foiled hardback which I could sell at £12.99 online with lots of extras, that didn’t cost the earth to produce. My book package is still one of the things I’m most proud of. I still have lots of fond memories of seeing the bookstagrammers open up the package on their stories. It got a lot of coverage on bookstagram. And this was down to how much effort I put into the package looking good. 

4. Netgalley helped
One of the services I took from Matador was for them to launch my book on Netgalley a few weeks before release. This was one of my biggest wins. For those of you who don’t know about Netgalley. It basically allows readers to download free books before release. Now, I’m sure you’ll ask why am I giving away my book for free when I can be selling it. Well, many publishers use Netgalley to generate reviews and buzz in the book community before launch and I’m pretty sure this was one of the main reasons I received so much interest. Because of the cover and blurb (see point 2) it generated lots of interest, topped its middle grade category and became Netgalley’s book of the week. Netgalley then gave me extra free promotion and it received higher downloads than many traditionally published books in the same category. Beware though Netgalley and Goodreads can be brutal for reviews. Some made me cry to read, but I actually got 4 out of 5 stars, so looking back now I probably got off lightly for the amount of reviews on a self-published book.

5. I sold most books hardback direct to customer
My Amazon sales were and still are pretty poor. This wasn’t where I focussed my effort. In hindsight, I probably should have but that was restricted due to point 1. So, because I build websites and do digital marketing for a living, I built myself a shopify ecommerce website and did facebook and Instagram advertising. Look, I appreciate not every author knows how to do this, but it’s the day job for me and I’ve done it for 20 years so it was far easier than writing the book in the first place! There’s a lot authors (and publishers) need to know about digital marketing and websites. It's not something you can learn overnight. I work with traditional publishers as part of my marketing consultancy, including big 5 publishers, and I can tell you that most traditional publishers do not know how to do digital marketing. I sit there open mouthed, dumb founded at it to be honest. It’s a completely untapped channel for them. But it takes technical knowledge. You can’t just go putting ads on ad manager. You need to use the science of digital marketing. Set up targeted campaigns, have pixels involved, set the right budget, at the right time, retarget particular audiences, test and learn creative. It’s what most top ecommerce websites pay £80k a year plus for a marketing agency to manage, but traditional publishers seem to think they can throw a few bob at youtube and facebook and get a graduate intern who's never used facebook or Google Paid ads in their lives to set up. It just ain't going to cut the mustard for any author - even the established ones. That said shopify is fairly easy to set up for any technically minded authors and I will try and share more tips about how to do digital marketing the right way further down the line.

6. I chose my social channel carefully
As a digital marketeer I would say to best reach book buyers focus on instagram, facebook, TikTok or Youtube. I say or here because you really only have time to focus on one properly. I chose instagram. I've absolutely no idea why authors focus all their time on building up a profile on twitter to sell books. Yes it's great for connecting with authors, publishers, the writing community etc but selling books? Selling anything on Twitter is a hard slog. Any digital marketeer worth their salt would rather eat a Wittchety grub than invest hard dosh in using it's advertising platform. Which tells you all you need to know about how successful Twitter's advertising platform is at selling anything, and it's why today as I write this Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has just been giving his marching orders by investors. It's nothing to do with the fact he liked to go home early for yoga. It's to do with the fact he can't make any money selling advertising. And if you can't make money as a social platform what exactly is the point of you? At least from the money men's point of view anyway. That said, if you've got the time get on all channels. But it's a time thing for me. It sucks so much time out of the marketing day that I have to put my eggs in one basket and that's instagram. Tiktok is a dream for selling books and those who are good at funny videos. But I am most definitely not good at that. I know my shortcomings and doing a funny dance to sell a book is not one of them. But I am good at taking photos and styling things so instagram plays to my strengths. So choose a social channel that plays to your strengths and put your effort into that. 

7. Social influencers are heaven sent

Which brings me to social influencers - heaven sent marketing. I started setting up my instagram two years before I even published my book. I've got over 6000 followers on instagram now but it's been and continues to be a hard slog to keep going with it. But I've got to know some really great people through it. Really top notch influencers who know books and know their stuff. The community has been nothing but kind to me. I sent my book out with lots of goodies to book influencers and beautifully wrapped so bookstagrammers could unbox it. I also paid for some placements on bookstagram and on youtube. This wasn’t cheap, but it gave the book the buzz I needed to make sales and it was probably my cheapest marketing channel. I also released 3 prequel short stories to build momentum early on. I will be eternally grateful to the many bookstagrammers who featured my book on their feeds. Many I approached direct. And the ones I didn’t were part of a paid book tour. You don't need to go for influencers with huge following. Even the ones like me with only 6000 plus followers can get a decent reach. The key is to look at the engagement. How many people are liking and commenting on their posts, resharing? The more the better. If they've 10K followers and no one is commenting on their posts they are probably not getting much community reach.

8. An audiobook didn't make much money
Out of all the things I did producing the audio book was the most rewarding thing I did. I produced it via the Audio factory  They were amazing and the actress who read my book literally brought tears to my eyes when I heard it for the first time. It still does. But it was an indulgence and one that didn't make me enough money to justify it. I went exclusive with audible. Here it is if you want a sample listen. Marketing an audio book is tricky because as of yet audible don't have a marketing platform where you can advertise. So you have to rely on other channels like facebook advertising which isn't great at targeting audio customers. It is a market I am sure will grow and I'm so proud I did it.

9. Investing in an app was a frivolous waste of money but it has the potential to disrupt in the future.
Seeing a children's faces when I demo the augmented reality app for Smailholm is an absolute pleasure. If you've got children, you'll know how difficult it is to get them to read. Well mine, anyway. So because I've worked in digital for so long I really wanted to do something digital with my book. So I produced an augmented reality game with the characters in the book. It works by downloading the app in the Apple Store and pointing it at the book cover. The characters pop up in 3D and you can shoot arrows at a target and play with the dog. It didn't cost much to do if you know who to go to and one day augmented reality really will come home to roost in children's publishing. But it may take a while. You can see it in action here

10. The Money Stuff
It pains me to say this but after all the above and a good chunk of personal investment I probably broke even. Selling books is harder than selling cuddly toys, biscuits, mortgages, hand sanitiser, clothes, stationary, cakes, plant pots and any manor of other things I’ve sold at bulk online over the years. And when I’m talking numbers here the biggest ecommerce brand I’ve worked with makes £500K a week at peak season. Books single-handedly takes the crown in my career for being the most difficult thing to sell, with the least margin, and the most work. And as you can see I threw everything but the kitchen sink at the marketing of it. Perhaps in the end it just wasn't a good enough book. But I still think there ain’t no money in books people. And if you are doing it for money, I’d suggest another career. Sure enough there will be authors who can make publishing work big time. The lucky ones who word of mouth hits and they become a Matt Haig. Or moderately successful with a big back catalogue that can earn a decent enough salary by churning out a few books a year. But these people either get word of mouth lucky or have big publishers behind them, with bigger pockets and the clout to get their books into bookshops. And when 60% of books are still purchased in bookshops and we have the most developed ecommerce market in the world right here in the UK, this becomes a problem for the self publisher. Because for love nor money I couldn’t get my book into that many bookshops. And it cuts out one big market. So however good I was at the online bit, I couldn’t make up that 60% distribution which is like prizing open a closed up clam with a spoon for the self-publisher.

A note to everyone who has read this far! I’m sure there are many different experiences from those who have self-published. And I’ve no doubt there are many who are very successful, particularly in the markets that play well to self-publishing like romance, or crime or even sci-fi. These are just my experiences with one book. I’m sure I’ve done many things wrong, and some things right. But either way I’ve learned a lot to take into my next book. Be it self-published or traditionally published. For now, I’m trying to go down the traditional route but I’ve no doubt at some point I will return to self-publishing. I’m a bit of a control freak anyway and self-publishing is the perfect antidote for that.