What I've Learned in One Year of Self-Publishing

June 12th, 2016, I uploaded 43 Seconds to Kindle Direct Publishing and clicked the submit button. One hour later it was live. Since then, I've published Signal Loss, Aero One, Hayden's World Shorts, and Erebus. When I started, I recall reading many self-publisher's blog posts about how their journey unfurled. I thought I'd share mine after the first year.

Writing Craft

There are endless books on story structure, plot, characters, grammar, and dialogue. I devoured them. James Scott Bell's and Marcy Kennedy's series are very helpful. By far, Self Editing for Fiction Writers is essential and probably should be required reading for self-publishers. It addresses many of the common problems newer writers face.

Here’s a few things I've needed to focus on as a newer writer:

Passive Voice (the bane of newer writers):

Long ago I wrote a story titled "Wraith's Dance" and submitted it to Weird Tales. I received a refusal letter, but was pleasantly surprised that it included a constructive critique from the editor. He liked the story, but the deal breaker was its passive voice. Keep writing, he encouraged.

When we speak, we're used to telling a story using the word "was" to indicate a transient action:

He was running down the hall when the bell rang.

Ditching the word 'was' and just using the actual verbs ran or rang changes the sentence from a state (was running) to an active verb (he ran, the bell rang):

He ran down the hall as the bell rang.

The bell rang as he ran down the hall.

Both are more engaging than "he was running down the hall".

I recommend using your word processor's Find/Replace to locate every use of "was" and determine if it's needed. I found this was littered throughout my writing.

A little less common, but even worse, is using was to put the recipient of the action first:

The martini was splashed in his face by Jane.

Much better to write:

Jane splashed the martini in his face.

I can't recall which writing book listed the acronym R.U.E, but it definitely applied to my early work.  R.U.E. is "resist the urge to explain".  The biggest offender for me was "to", as in:

He opened the door to search for the axe murderer.

Better to let the reader figure it out based on the character's actions:

His pulse raced as he reached for the door knob. He had to find Eugene before he killed again.

Seriously, it was everywhere in my writing. To do this, to do that. Readers like watching a character and trying to deduce what they're up to.

Tight Writing and Pacing

As you'd guess, don't use a hundred words to say something best described with a dozen. I found my biggest offender was the word "of":

Pools of radiant light filled the room.

Flowery, but better to say:

Radiant pools filled the room.

Right? Radiant is a stronger word to start the sentence and doesn't require mental gymnastics to extract the modifier between the object and verb.

Pacing's a little harder to pin down. It's easy when writing sci-fi to get swept away in descriptions, but endless description is boring and endless action is tiresome. You need to constantly mix-up description, actions and dialogue to keep things moving. The other thing I'll say is that it's often better to suggest descriptions with a few well-chosen words. For instance, the waves bled with fading sunlight conjures a complete mental image in six words.

When I wrote Aero One, the opening paragraphs were very focused on Jia's senses and confusion. The high level or detail didn't match the urgency of her situation, though. I self-edited it down to:

Thoughts spark and fizzle in an overlapping jumble of competing primal urges. Air. She needs air.

 

Head Hopping

Phew! This one's tough. We've grown up watching television and movies which constantly cut between different character's perspectives. Some are better than others at keeping you in the main character's head.

For example, the camera frames a close-up of Bob's expression as he looks down at a letter. Next, it cuts to what Bob reads in the letter. Off-screen, we hear the clinking glasses as Sandy opens the kitchen's liquor cabinet. Great!

More typically we see Bob reading a letter followed by a camera cut to Sandy in the kitchen. Bob can't see Sandy from where he's standing in the study, but we get to see her pouring the poison into his brandy.

When I started writing I mimicked this cinematic approach. There's no rule that says you can't do that, just keep in mind that in this case you're writing as a detached omniscient viewer and your reader will have the same experience. This weighed on my mind as I wrote my recent story Erebus. Staying with Sarah's perspective meant the reader didn't know what happened to James. If this were a tv episode, it would have cut simply to what James was doing while Sarah searched for him.

Note this doesn't mean that you can't change character point-of-views using line or chapter breaks. Just keep in mind there are pros and cons to POV changes.

Dialogue

The simplest rule is "he said/she said".

"Yup, we're all going to die," Hitoshi said.

I remember getting confused and sometimes typing it backwards:

"Yup, we're all going to die," said Hitoshi.

But that puts the verb before the object.

Even better, eliminate the dialogue tag with stage direction:

Hitoshi facepalmed and shook his head. "Yup, we're all going to die."

Formatting Your Book/Creating Cover Art

Scrivener is invaluable for organizing and writing your story. It's project management software for writers.

Scrivener project file for Erebus

Scrivener project file for Erebus

 

If you have enough patience, you can produce well-formatted books directly out of Scrivener. I did not, so I purchased Vellum. Vellum's expensive, but produces beautiful books.

Vellum file for Erebus. Very easy to create a professional ebook or paperback.

Vellum file for Erebus. Very easy to create a professional ebook or paperback.

Canva is the easiest way to create a quick book cover online, and it's cheap. Alternatively, if you have some design skills you can purchase stock photos (make sure you select the right license) and assemble your own cover in Photoshop.  

Paperback cover design in Photoshop for Hayden's World Shorts. Background planet is a licensed Adobe stock photo.

Paperback cover design in Photoshop for Hayden's World Shorts. Background planet is a licensed Adobe stock photo.

If you have artistic skills, you can use Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop to create custom artwork. For Aero One, I designed the cover from scratch. The nice thing about doing all of the artwork yourself is that there is no licensing:

Pro tip when doing your own design in Illustrator: also design social media graphics, like the cluster on the left of Facebook and Twitter cards designed for ads and free promotions.

Pro tip when doing your own design in Illustrator: also design social media graphics, like the cluster on the left of Facebook and Twitter cards designed for ads and free promotions.

Lastly, you can also outsource it to a designer via a site like 99 designs.

Here's how I created the cover for 43 Seconds:

  • The background's warp effect is a licensed Adobe stock photo
  • The spaceship is a 3D model created in the free modeling software, Blender
  • The foreground text is a layer in Photoshop.
Blender 3d model of Bernard's Beauty for 43 Seconds

Blender 3d model of Bernard's Beauty for 43 Seconds

Photoshop composite of background art (generated in Blender) with foreground text

Photoshop composite of background art (generated in Blender) with foreground text

Reviews and Sales

And now the bad news. When I started I feared I would post my book and get peppered with one-star reviews. The reality is that next-to-no-one will see your book, and out of those that do, one-in-a-thousand will leave a review. Getting peppered with negative reviews is an upgrade to where you actually start. I've had my best luck getting reviews with Amazon Giveaways. I do use KDP free days, but they never generate reviews.

Regarding sales, my annual book sales can probably buy me a single, nice dinner. If you're looking to make money, I suggest trying to sell to magazines.  If you get 6 cents per word for a 6000 word story like 43 Seconds, you'll make $360. Maybe I'll try writing some non-Hayden's World stories and submit those to magazines.

Advertising

Amazon ads do work, but they are not cost effective for 99 cent books (unless you can upsell a series).  I typically land in the 40 to 50 cents-per-click range and need ten clicks to get one sale. Four to five dollars to sell a 99 cent book isn't a sound business model. Giveaways work better because four to five dollars gets you four to five sales. Without ads or giveaways, however, my books fall into obscurity. When using ads, Product Ads work much better than Keyword Ads in generating actual sales, probably because they are better targeted. 

In the top chart, the blue bars represent free books purchased and the orange bars are paid books sold. The bottom chart shows pages read via Kindle Unlimited book borrows. In December 2016, I learned how to promote my Kindle free days more effectively and started using Amazon ads.  

In the top chart, the blue bars represent free books purchased and the orange bars are paid books sold. The bottom chart shows pages read via Kindle Unlimited book borrows. In December 2016, I learned how to promote my Kindle free days more effectively and started using Amazon ads.  

Spamming buy-my-book on twitter is counter-productive and will cost you followers. Twitter is for sharing content. I do recommend posting snippets of your good writing, especially if they fit the day's theme (SciFiFri for example), or if they're works-in-progress and fit the #amwriting tag.

Wrap-up

I feel like I've learned a lot this first year. I've taught myself Scrivener, Photoshop, Illustrator, Blender, Vellum, and KDP. Getting an occasional review from an excited reader makes my day. Writing in series for the Hayden's World stories has been challenging because each story needs to be independent, and each time I finish a work I have this self-doubt phase of wondering how I'll come up with something new. But, the stories keep churning out, and they're getting longer and more complex:

  1. 43 Seconds - 6000 words
  2. Signal Loss - 9000 words
  3. Aero One - 9300 words
  4. Erebus - 17,000 words

So, marching into year two and seeing where my keyboard takes me.