A Crash Course in Self Publishing and Marketing for Indie Authors

Are you trying to write a book? If not, you’re the only one.

The temptations of writing and publishing a book are many: the feeling of empowerment that comes with finishing a large project; the respectability and deference that comes with introducing yourself as a “published author”; and of course the opportunity to make boatloads of money.

A book is a product that is relatively cheap to develop and which can potentially yield a very high return for investment.

And if you fail or the book isn’t that popular, the risk is low that your “real life” will be adversely affected.

But how is it done?

The right way used to be to get a publisher or agent, and have them take care of everything for you. All you had to do was write the story.

That way doesn’t really exist any more. At the very least you’ll be required to help promote the book, and it’s unlikely you’ll make much money from publishing, unless you manage to finish a new book every year or so.

Instead, a lot of people are deciding to self-publish.

But most of them screw it up.

The reason so many indie books are terrible is because the authors treat their books like a hobby; they make mistakes during the publishing process, rather than learning how to do things professionally before their book is available.

There are tons of resources to doing things right, but the truth is, most authors are lazy and stubborn. They want to do things their way, and they don’t give a damn about how to do things well. They think that they, and they alone, are doing something so novel and revolutionary with their book that they don’t have to be concerned with things like marketing, or having a new book cover or website design, because they are destined to be famous.

In short, most authors are insane.

But that’s to be expected: insanity is the only way to make yourself believe that what you’re doing has real value. A heightened sense of self-importance, an almost spiritual persistent belief in your own greatness, is just part of what it means to be an author.

Creative people have to be a bit insane.

But if you want to be a successful creative person, and support yourself and your family, rather than another tragically misunderstood, unappreciated artistic genius, then you have to stop digging your own grave and start getting smart (practical) about publishing.

The Indie Publishing Game

A lot of indie and self-publishing authors are still trying to play the “Big Boy” game of Traditional Publishing. This includes, for example, getting media exposure, sending out Advanced Review Copies in advance, Getting on TV or Radio, and paying lots and lots of money to book promotion or marketing experts.

You may feel, being a small fish in a huge ocean, that you need to keep throwing money into your book. “It takes money to make money, right?”

The problem is that you’re playing a game that you weren’t invited to. You’re competing against multi-million dollar publishers who are trying to get these same few media and press opportunities; and they’ve got much more money than you do.

The wonderful thing is, indie authors can play a totally different game – and it’s a game that works better and costs much less!

The indie publishing game is working so well, in fact, that major companies are going out of business.

Who do you trust?

Traditional Publishers use a top down approach: they push the book into the media, people read it, and talk about it, and they sell more books.

Indies use the opposite approach. Getting people to read and talk about their book first. Then when it’s selling well and you’re rich and famous, the media will come crawling to you. That should be your goal. And it doesn’t cost any money.

The reason it works is that people can now read the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, and those reviews to a huge extent influence books sales, perhaps even more than media coverage. We’ve grown skeptical of the books supported by the press, because sometimes they aren’t that great anyway. And we love the thrill of discovering an unknown new indie voice, and help a self-published author beat the odds.

How do you play the game?

Most indie authors know they need to price low or do tons of giveaways; basically give the book away to as many people as you can. Your goal is to get people to READ it, not necessarily buy it.

You also want to offer some incentive or tie-in. Don’t just beg people to read it because it’s awesome; learn how to sell it.

If you haven’t paid for professional copy editing of your sales pitch, back cover copy, book info on Amazon, etc, you should.

Those few meager paragraphs are the gateway to book sales. The content/summary, the cover and the reviews are the 3 powerhouses of book sales.

Don’t neglect them. Check on all sites, Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Apple store, and make sure you have reviews. If you have less than ten reviews, don’t even start marketing! Driving customers to a page with no reviews is wasted effort!

What your Marketing Plan should look like


The beginning of your marketing plan should really be to write a better book. I think about 80% of indie authors are investing their time and energy on their first book before it’s really ready. Read some books on writing. Clean up the plot, the beginning and ending, the intro and closing of chapters. Heighten tension. There should be conflict on every page. Have believable characters who have a reason for everything they do, rather than emotion-puppets who just get angry or sad a lot.

I won’t lecture you on writing, but keep in mind that if your book fails, it’s probably because you didn’t work hard enough to improve it.

But let’s assume that it’s finished, and it’s really good. What next?

1) Get your book edited, formatted, and get an awesome cover.

This is the beginning, the foundation of your sales. Respect your customers enough to give them a quality product.

It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. You can even learn to do most things by yourself, although in my experience it’s worth paying a professional to do things better and faster.

If the book is good, you’ll easily make the money back in sales. If it isn’t that good, you should’ve read this article earlier and fixed the writing before you invested in anything else.

2) Start finding people, bloggers, organizations, anybody who will read your book.

But how, you ask? Start or join a book club in your community. Put a poster in your local library, or post on Craigslist.

I’ll be it’s pretty easy to find 50 people near you who also want to promote their books. Swap reviews.

Contact bloggers or people with websites that might want a copy. (If your book is set in a city, write to bloggers in that city. If it involves horses, write to people writing about horses).

Be creative. Get in touch with people. Offer them a real copy in exchange for reviews, or the PDF. (This is so, so much easier with a nice cover).

This approach is like cold-calling, however.

Something easier may be to attract people to you through your blog. Pick 25 popular books that you think are similar to yours and do an in-depth review. At the end, write “if you liked this book, you may like my new book XXX”.

Pick some topics potential readers would be interested in or want to learn about, and blog about them. Be informative.

Offer a review copy to people who sign up on your mailing list (if you do this early, by the time the book is out you could have a few hundred potential readers).

3) Make sure they post on amazon and everywhere.

Copy the reviews you get onto your book page/blog, and add the good ones inside the book. Add some nice blurbs to your cover.

4) Now that you have at least 10 reviews, hopefully more, you can start actually marketing.

First of all, try to get in the Media. You writing a book is not newsworthy. A press release that says “John Doe writes Book” is doomed. Think of an angle, to connect your book with something awesome, amazing, incredible. Physically do or make something visible, tangible, incredible, that you can take pictures of and share. Something that’s never been done before.

Dali once came to an art show wearing a full diver’s outfit and headgear. When he started suffocating and couldn’t get the helmet off, he almost died. What did it all have to do with his art? Nothing – but it got attention; it was a news story in itself. The book is just a side-note to the amazing story about whatever it is you’re doing. Once you have that idea, and do it, THEN you can write a press release.

5) Advertise.

I don’t strongly recommend advertising – but it does work. The key is consistency so think long-term. Again, advertising before you have a landing page (amazon page, etc) that converts visitors into buyers (with professional sales copy, lots of reviews and a great cover) is a waste of time and money. Also, before you advertise, think about…

6) Write another book.

Every book you have out there means all of your marketing efforts are doubled, and will probably lead to double sales. So if you have 1 book and spend $1000 in advertising, you might make $1000 back in sales. But if you have 10 books out there, you could make $10,000 back in sales.

7) Write Short Stories.

A lot of indie authors put all their eggs into one book. But you can sell a 10,000word novella ebook for 99cents, and you can write it in a tenth of the time it took you to write your book. So besides long, perfect novels, try to crank out excellent, entertaining short stories, the more the better: that’s the real secret to financial success in indie publishing.

Takeaway Points

  • The real money in self-publishing is in volume. Write a lot of books and short stories, put nice covers on them, get them out there.
  • Successful writers are good writers. Learning to write better and improving your book will work more than anything else.
  • Your book is a product. Make sure it’s perfect.

About Derek Murphy

I help authors and artists turn their passions into full-time businesses, make a bigger impact, and blaze a luminous trail of creative independence. Right now I'm in Taiwan finishing a PHD in Literature, writing several books, and managing a handful of online businesses. Find me
  • This is excellent. It seems obvious but sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of the path

  • Lynda Lee

    This post is chuck full of excellent advice. Thank you!

    Can you also recommend some good drugs to help with the massive anxiety attack I got as I read about all the stuff I need to do?

    Just kidding. I think.

  • I just found this post and had to chuckle. I’ve been on a tear about almost the exact points you have. Primarily produce a higher quality product, have it edited, professional cover, and PRICE it correctly, usually a comfortable range for your audience to encourage them to give you a shot. But then I ran into people thinking you’re spending like 6k to do all this. HUH? What are you smoking? No, good, qualified freelancers are out there for reasonable prices but DO YOUR HOMEWORK it is very much buyer beware.

    • Thanks for your comment – I agree, and it’s getting cheaper. I’m putting out some free templates/a formatting guide soon, and will probably post some alternatives for cheap cover design as well. If you know exactly what you want you can get everything done (minus editing) for a couple hundred $ – without sacrificing quality if you do it right. I haven’t found a way to ‘cheaply’ do editing, but with enough friends or online contacts it’s very possible to help each other out. On the other hand, a lot of authors are intent on spending a few thousand on marketing anyway. I feel like, they’re going to give it to someone, maybe I ought to offer my own service so at least I can do a solid job…

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