My Indie Journey From Start to Finish:
The Indie Experiment:The Beginning
The Indie Experiment:The Decision
The Indie Experiment:The Teacher
The Indie Experiment: The Truth
The Indie Experiment: The Dream
The Indie Experiment: The Reality
Hitting publish on my first novel wasn’t just an act of defiance, it was a dream come true. My book was out there, drifting in the bowels of the internet, just waiting to be discovered and the freedom of that was more satisfying and more terrifying than anything I’d ever done. But even though the dream may have started small, the very act of self-publishing making it come true, somewhere along the way that dream grew exponentially. Like any other newbie I spent the majority of my time, not working on my second novel, but researching every self-publishing success story out there. I read about people like Amanda Hocking and Hugh Howey and Joe Konrath and with every new article and bit of data I manufactured this new dream. This bigger dream that was more than just making money from my books and more than even making a living. I actually let myself get lost in the possibility that I could win the indie lottery and become a millionaire.
I was twenty and I was naive and I was greedy. Most young people are, which is why when absolutely none of that happened I was crushed. Yes, I was actually crushed that my book hadn’t sold a million copies and that I was still living in my shoe box apartment with a poltergeist toilet and rabid raccoons that liked to sleep on my doorstep. I know a lot of writers out there, inexperienced writers in particular (who may or may not have stumbled upon this blog post in search of the very same self-publishing insight as I did three years ago) will find it really difficult not to indulge in the dream of huge world dominating success. Let’s face it, who doesn’t want to be rich doing what they love? It’s the ultimate dream and the more indie success stories that continue to crop up, the more attainable it seems. The more it seems less like a fantasy and more like an achievable goal.
Even when you enter into self-publishing with a clear head and realistic expectations it’s almost impossible not to hope. In fact, that unwavering (albeit at times, unrealistic) hope is actually necessary. Being successful in the arts or entertainment industry takes a certain amount of blissful ignorance or else we’d all give up at the first sign of failure–another necessary ingredient to success. But sometimes that hope can also hinder you because having unrealistic expectations has a tendency to turn normal setbacks into failures when in reality they’re just necessary growing pains. When I was binge-reading every indie success story I could find, second-hand sources had a tendency to make it sound like all of these people I admired had only toiled for mere months before hitting it big. There was nothing about the education that came before or the years of rejections via traditional publishing or the mental and emotional demons each writer had to slay before they were actually able to hit publish. Subconsciously I knew they’d put in the hard work because, as a writer myself, I knew all that it took to write a novel start to finish. But still, there was something distilled about these success stories, shallow and…too easy. When I self-published my own novel I certainly didn’t think that it would be easy to find readers but I also didn’t anticipate it being near impossible.
These days writers are a lot more forthcoming about how hard it really is to find indie success but that still doesn’t stop people from having unrealistic expectations. Everyone thinks that they are talented enough or deserving enough to be the exception to the rule but the truth is success isn’t guaranteed to anyone. The truth is, even after putting in the work, you still might not sell enough books to buy a pack of gum. But despite this fact people are still trying to discover some kind of secret formula. Some people claim that sales automatically pick up after you publish your second or third novel. Some people claim that the right price point is key. Some people swear by using certain promo sites. Some people suggest writing only series or connected novels that revisit the same characters/setting/etc. There are a lot of assumptions and opinions out there about what sells books and I can tell you from personal experience that I have yet to obtain the proof that supports any of them.
Despite having some pretty lofty expectations when it came to publishing my first novel, I also wasn’t the type to just sit around and wait for lightning to strike. Instead I wrote. Like crazy. It was all I did for the past two years, and literally it’s all I do now. I know no one wants to hear about the months I spent in my pajamas on the couch, never seeing the light of day but I imagine if you took a snapshot from the first few years of any successful indie author’s career you’d discover them doing the exact same thing. There is nothing I want more than to make a living as a writer and even as someone who doesn’t make very much money self-publishing, I still devote at least four hours a day to writing. Just writing. And it’s the reason I was able to publish three novels during my first year of self-publishing. Unfortunately, the reality of my situation was that that momentum just wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough to just write three novels and put them online. It wasn’t enough to just wish that someone would discover them and share them with their friends. So I took the plunge into marketing.
I’ve always been a fairly private person and even though I started dabbling in blogging around the release of my first book, marketing absolutely terrified me. I attempted putting together some kind of blog tour but after the past two years of soliciting reviews from book bloggers and sending out close to a thousand emails, I only have about thirty reviews to show for it. Thirty. That’s the reality of being an indie author. You will work your ass off and the profit will be minuscule or sometimes even nonexistent. Luckily though I never let these things get in my way and my main focus was always on writing. Seven months after I published my first novel, I published my second, the third draft of which was already complete by the time I published The Things They Didn’t Bury. This time around I did absolutely no marketing and didn’t solicit a single review. I guess I just had my fingers crossed that that myth about 2 being the magic number would hold true. It didn’t.
But I was still writing. Even though no one was actually reading my books I was still writing. One of the things I’m really proud of as I look back on my writing journey over these past couple of years is my ability to put the blinders on and just keep working. It’s a necessary trait of every good artist because staying focused on the present moment is really the only way to finish. And finishing is what separates the dreamers from the doers. I’ve always been a dreamer but I’ve also always been a doer, which is why my unrealistic expectations didn’t cripple me like they could have. Instead I looked at every month that went by where I didn’t sell a copy of my novels as just one month closer to the day I would.
In my first 2 years of self-publishing I have sold less than a hundred copies of my novels. And unless you are extremely lucky (as in win the lottery, get struck by lightning, survived a near death experience more than once lucky) your experience will probably be pretty similar. The good news is, after everything I’ve learned, I still believe that hard work and patience will always be rewarded. Maybe not in the way we want or expect but I believe that always doing your best is the quickest way to success. So what does all of this mean for anyone considering self-publishing? It means don’t be an ignorant fool. It means that for a while you are going to have to erase all of your expectations and find something else to motivate you every day other than financial freedom. And most importantly it means that we shouldn’t believe in things as insubstantial as luck, but instead we should choose to believe in one thing and one thing only–ourselves.
But don’t stop dreaming and don’t stop hoping. I still haven’t. After selling less than a hundred copies I still hope every day that things will take a turn for the better. But I also don’t rely on that hope. Instead I rely on myself, on my hard work, on my passion, on my drive. In 567 days I have yet to take over the world but despite my more realistic expectations these days, I hope and I know that that doesn’t mean I never will.