The Book Mechanic
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The Book Mechanic

How to Self-Publish a Book That Won’t Sell

Or: How to Launch a Book Like an Amateur in 5 Unprofessional Steps

Photo by Fabiola Peñalba on Unsplash

I have been there.

I dreamed of being one of those many indie authors who “made it” — people who can boast about their hundreds of fans, their five-figure paychecks, and the wide recognition of their work.

In my first attempt, however, I did exactly what they don’t do.

I didn’t know how to be an indie author; I didn’t research enough, and I took the steps exactly like the amateur I was. And it sure showed.

I approached self-publishing as I thought one would approach traditional publishing: I focused my efforts entirely on the word count, I tirelessly revised my manuscript until I thought it was “good enough” — whatever that might have meant at the time — and… that’s it. I thought the work had ended there.

I thought the major part of being an indie author was writing the manuscript — and I was wrong.

I rushed some book cover, asked some people to read the final draft, and then I was ready to launch my work.

My results were mediocre. Only some friends bought my book, and even though they had appraised it (whether for real or not, I will never know), I couldn’t find any stranger on the reviews. My book was never recognized — let alone made me any money.

And when I stop to think about it today, it is no wonder that I got such results.

People wouldn’t magically find out about my book, buy it among thousands of titles around — that are probably better marketed, better presented, and better edited —, and write a review saying it had changed their lives.

These facts are, now, painfully obvious to me.

But because they might not seem obvious to other indie authors who are at the same stage I was years ago, I wrote this guide about things I wish I had known before. About the things that are easily accessible on the internet — I just didn’t have the idea to go out and search for them, because I underestimated the effort of self-publishing a book and misunderstood the roles an indie author must play.

Step 1: Don’t Set Up a Schedule — Write on the Fly Instead

Why would you need a schedule? You are a writer, for Poe’s sake.

You are one of those troubled yet imaginative souls whose work cannot be categorized and tracked like those of poor mortals. Your writing is so precious that you only write when you feel inspired — and thus it makes no sense at all to set up a writing schedule. On top of that, you are writing, not doing some blue-collar job.


Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

One more time so you can internalize it: Wrong.

If you want to take a shot at being successful as an indie writer, be organized. Set up schedules, measure your productivity, try to optimize your workflow. That doesn’t mean writing like a robot, but planning the way ahead and keeping track of your milestones.

August Birch wrote a foolproof guide on this. I strongly recommend reading it so I don’t have to repeat his words.

Step 2: Don’t Waste Money With Editors and Proofreaders

Editors and proofreaders are expensive.

Sure you can replace them with the free version of Grammarly and a bunch of friends, right?

Well, yes, you can. But the odds are that your book will show it. And there are fewer things more capable of demotivating a potential reader than reviews and comments about typos and lack of editing.

So treat your book as an investment — if you want to tread the path of an indie author, it is literally that. Although hiring experts to work on your book is indeed expensive, you can always estimate how much you can spend on your book and create an appropriate budget.

Here you can have a good idea of how much you should spend on your book, and the different types of services needed. You need to familiarize yourself with developmental editing, copy editing, proofreading, beta reading, and so on.

There are authors who spend less than $500 throughout the production of their books, and there are those who invest way over $5000. It is all a matter of budget and planning. If you don’t earn any royalties currently and don’t have a solid plan to market your books, perhaps it isn’t a good idea to spend a fortune on your first manuscript — and wait for a bestselling hit. If, however, you are already on the five figures per month and you have a solid, hot e-mail list replete with avid readers, then it may make sense to spend some thousands of dollars on your book.

It will, after all, make up for the money invested— and likely more.

Step 3: Not Judging Your Book By Its Cover

Yeah, there are lots of tools around with which you can design a book cover for free. So why would you need to pay a professional designer for it?

Well, I sure had a narrative like that in my head about the quality of a book lying in its content. Wasting my time with the cover design was not so relevant as having a good book written.

And don’t take me wrong: a book can only be as good as its content. But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t worry about the cover, or dismiss it as being unimportant.

The fact is: the cover is a cornerstone of every book’s project. And because you are an indie author, you should care about it. A lot.

Let’s run an experiment real quick.

Go to Amazon and select Kindle Store. Then type something. I’ll type werewolves, I don’t know. Then look at the first twenty books on that list.

Some books stand out positively; others just scream out “amateur.” And why do you think this happens?

Think about it. What attracts your attention when scrolling through a book list?

Yep. The cover.

Readers will probably come across your book through different channels — and search engines on websites like Amazon are major channels. There, they will market your book among many others. Make sure that your cover grabs the reader’s attention.

If you need a professionally-looking cover that fits in a tight budget, I can recommend Go On Write. James — the designer — is a nice guy, and I hired his work more than once. I don’t earn a penny for this; I just like his work.

Step 4: Ask Your Friends and Family to Buy Your Book as Soon as It Goes Out

It is tempting.

You worked hard for it — spent days and nights on your manuscript, crafting and perfecting it. It is just fair that you tell your friends — to tell their friends — about it.

But hear me out: Don’t. Do. This.

There’s a simple explanation for that.

Whether on Amazon or other selling channels, your book will likely be shown to potential customers/readers according to their tastes, previous searches, and order history. You probably know more or less how algorithms decide what is shown to whom at this point. It works like this: if you watch many Horror movies on Netflix, then Netflix will start showing more Horror movies to you. If you buy a lot of Science Fiction books on the Kindle Store, then don’t be surprised when you see a lot of them on Amazon.

It works the other way around, too — websites and apps analyze the typical buyers of a certain product and market it to people with similar interests.

So… what happens when the first customers of your book are your friends and family?

Algorithms will start showing your book to people who have similar interests and order histories like them.

And this can be messy. You can end up with a supernatural romance being offered to people who like biographies. Or people who like buying frying pans, I don’t know.

Step 5: Don’t Have a Marketing Plan

You’re an author — not a salesperson. The very idea of getting your “hands dirty” with marketing and self-promotion might turn you off, even.

But the truth is: as an indie author, you can’t afford to be just an author. You must wear different hats — like that of a seasoned marketer.

You have to know how to market your book even before it comes out because the launch is a fundamental step for the success — or failure — of your work. You have to identify your readers, attract them, keep them, engage them, and motivate them to buy your next books.

An e-mail list is a must-have, for example — people who hear regularly from you and to whom you can promote your works.

If you don’t have any idea about how to outline a marketing strategy, then start off here.

But the truth is: as an indie author, you can’t afford to be just an author.

That’s it.

That’s how I failed at my first books: by following each of these five steps.

Make sure not to follow them.

You just read another exciting post from the Book Mechanic: the source for writers and creators who want to make more work that sells and sell more work they make.

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Down-and-dirty growth strategies for commercial writers and creators, with a blue collar work ethic, and a no-nonsense voice.

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Morton Newberry

Morton Newberry

Interactive fiction and horror writer based in Germany. Check out The Vampire Regent:

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