What Surprised Me Most About Self-Publishing My Book
Today I’m wrapping up my exploration of the publication process for my independent book release, The Goodbye-Love Generation: A Novel in Stories. It took ten years, but what started off as my master’s thesis for my MFA in fiction writing became a real live book.
As I clicked the “publish” button on Amazon’s Kindle Direct website, it occurred to me that when I wrote the book between 2008 and 2010, publishing it independently never would have been an option.
This was when “vanity publishing” was looked upon as a way to lose credibility as an author at best and a Ponzi scheme at worst. This made investing in your own work a huge risk, not to mention an expensive one.
Personally, I was also still holding out hope that my dream of being on Book Notes with Brian Lamb would come true.
Flash forward to the present, though, and it’s a whole new world. Independent publishing, as I’ve discussed in past posts, isn’t for everybody, particularly if you lack the skills to do the job right.
You truly are your own publishing team—every member of it. And if you don’t want to do all the things (editing, design, marketing, layout, and event planning just to name a few), it’s probably best that you either hire other people to help or just stay away from it.
It’s true that in spite of my experience with editing, marketing, and design, I still felt like I was flying by the seat of my pants sometimes. Even though I’d previously self-published a chapbook a few years earlier, a collection of twenty-ish poems is different from a 153 page book.
However, I can honestly say that once the book landed out in the world, I was thrilled with the final product.
But then came the sales and the public response, and once those started pouring in, my nervous excitement turned to something I didn’t expect…
…and that was surprise. Flannery O’Connor famously said that “when a book leaves your hands, it belongs to God.” As a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ, I believe that it is a high calling to take full ownership of my work and its publication, and a big part of that is trusting that He will navigate its journey.
Regardless of what your world view is, doing publishing on your own is scary and it takes a lot of guts. Nonetheless, the results of the publication process are often unexpected and encouraging.
The most encouraging part is this: your book gets to the right people.
The first people who buy your book are going to be friends and family. There’s no way around it.
That’s just how it works, and it isn’t something to be ashamed of. It’s a fact of the marketing universe: any product will always sell to the people who have the closest connection with the message. The sales process begins with awareness and ends with customers telling other people about the product.
It’s not just how businesses sell products, though. It’s how authors create a fan base. Once someone is aware of your work and actually engages with your writing, it becomes likely that they’ll come back for more.
However, if someone already knows you and what you write, you’ve just skipped a few stages in developing a relationship with new readers.
So if your first ten book sales are your mom buying copies to give as gifts (like mine were), just go with it. Those sales still represent ten people who will read the book and potentially spread the word.
Still, once you start promoting your work, you’ll be amazed at how the book lands in the hands of the right readers. The Goodbye-Love Generation was written for my hometown of Kent, Ohio and based on experiences my family had there during the 1970s. I was thrilled when word spread about it and I began to hear that it resonated with that audience. But I knew for certain that my book had the power to impact people beyond Kent when I got an Instagram message from Greg.
Greg found my book by way of a Facebook ad I ran that drove traffic to a page where people could opt in to get a free story by email. He immediately bought the book after reading the freebie (which was, of course, the whole point). Once he read it, he reached out to me to share his story.
Greg served in Vietnam and returned to the States in 1969, after which he signed up to go to college on the G.I. Bill. He set foot on campus at the start of the most intense and ultimately deadliest year of protests against the war. Given the atmosphere of unrest, he chose not to tell anyone that he had been in the military.
As the year wore on, Greg felt more and more conflicted about his dual role as a veteran and a student. On one hand, he agreed with the students’ outrage against the war, but on the other, he still owed allegiance to the military. It was the shootings at Kent State on May 4, 1970 that capped off his frustration and internal conflict.
One of the stories in The Goodbye-Love Generation is about Larry, a student at Kent State who joins the National Guard to escape Vietnam. Subsequently, he finds himself at the center of the action when the Guard is deployed to Kent State’s campus following a riot downtown a few days before the shootings.
The story takes place in the present day when a recording a student made during the shootings is released to the public, forcing Larry to revisit the events and make sense of his traumatic memories. In his message, Greg shared with me how strongly he related to Larry, and how well the story captured the tension people in his position experienced. The point is this: if you put the book out there and invest yourself in promoting it, the right people will find it.
If your book isn’t about something as heavy as Vietnam, don’t worry. If it matters to you, it will matter to them.
But first, you have to believe it matters, and that means investing the time, resources, and yes, money, into getting the book out there. Last week’s blog contains a number of ideas for promoting your work, and I’m sure you’ll think of more.
Want to talk more about independently publishing your book? I’ve got plenty of advice and resources that extend beyond what we’ve covered in this blog series.
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