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Hindsight is 20/20: My Fourth Year in Self-Publishing

“What’s it like to be a self-published author?”

Boy, you’d think by my fourth year I’d have less trouble answering this question, but believe it or not, I think it’s actually gotten harder to answer.

It’s no surprise that 2016 was a brutal year for everyone on the planet. Half of us didn’t survive it. 2017 is infinitely better just by comparison, but 2016 really did leave us with a lot of scars. I lost my furry best friend of twelve years, for one thing, and I had such a rough year that even my book sales slid into the trashcan (probably so they could be close to me). I’ve been struggling for the past year to drag my poor book series out of the landfill and start pushing the boulder back up the mountain. It’s a long, miserable, lonely trip.

But it ain’t all bad.

For instance, recently I was lucky enough to save up my hard-earned, retail-slave-labor cash and move back to Atlanta, Georgia, my city, my hometown, my turf. I always knew I wanted to move back and it’s not just because Florida is God’s rubber room. (Seriously, what is with you, Florida? You scare me.) If I have even the slightest chance of advancing the Black Parade series and possibly even the Of Cinder and Bone series, I need to take a page out of the Little Mermaid’s book: “I wanna be where the people are.” No man is an island and I need to network, to fellowship, and to grow as an author in a metropolitan city almost as big and diverse as New York. I want to do more than shill my books to online audiences. I want to put down some roots and start collaborating to reach a wider audience and get the Word of Mouth going eventually, even if it takes years.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

It’s okay to change your mind. For instance, after I wrote The Holy Dark, I didn’t really think I’d dive back into Jordan Amador’s insane life again, at least at length, but an irresistible opportunity presented itself and I decided to explore a story that I felt was interesting without retreading too much ground that we’ve already covered in the trilogy. After all, that’s why I didn’t make it into an ongoing chronicle. I felt that Jordan’s story is the kind that’s best told with a finite number of books. It’s not nearly as large and sprawling as something like the Dresden Files or the Kate Daniels series. However, many people asked me how Myra Bennett and Jordan Amador met before The Holy Dark and I felt like it could be a good jumping off point into a novella.

Additionally, I was misguided with the first cover to Of Cinder and Bone. I thought that going for the sci-fi romance/interracial angle would draw in some readers, but it didn’t. The book tanked. It’s still tanking, but to be fair, it’s very niche and it’s long as hell. It’s going to be a real struggle to tread water, and so that’s why after Of Blood and Ashes is on digital bookshelves, Of Cinder and Bone will become a permafree title just like The Black Parade. It turns out that I overestimated my “fanbase”—which of course is not a jab at any of my fans. Rather, I got arrogant and assumed that those who had read the Black Parade would crossover and read this new series when that isn’t the case. I’m not that big of a deal and I needed to be humbled by struggling yet again to even get 10 sales a month for the new title. Well, mission accomplished. I’ve been eating humble pie for dinner every day for the past eight months. Coincidentally, that leads me to my next lesson.

It’s okay to be wrong. I was wrong about the cover for Of Cinder and Bone. I was wrong about how I thought it would do since I had an established readership before it came out. I was wrong about advertising and marketing. I was wrong about a lot of stuff. It sucks. It hurts. But as Lonely Island says, “I’M AN ADUUUUUUUUUUUUULT!” and I will push past it and get better at what I do. This business isn’t the forgiving kind, and it’s not very patient. You work or you die. That’s the way it is.

Be open to changing gears. Even though Of Cinder and Bone is in the dumps right now, I’m still hella glad that I gave it a shot. There is something almost perversely satisfying about taking something you’re really excited about and sharing it with the world, even if not that many people care about it. I haven’t broken through to the right demographic yet, but when I’ve given the elevator pitch to the novel to people, they actually seem genuinely interested in it, as it smacks of Jurassic Park, which everyone loves. If nothing else, I’ve really come to be fond of my off-kilter premise because it feels so uniquely mine. This isn’t to say that The Black Parade isn’t as well, but I am delighted that people acknowledge that it is a cool idea even if they’re not quite ready to dive into it yet. I still have to rebuild that readership from the ground up, but at least I know there is a demand for this type of mashup. It’s definitely a risk and it’s a loss for now, but I know that if I try hard enough, I can cut through the jungle and find the right readers. I think that’s one thing that the (very, very small) success of the Black Parade series has helped with, actually: giving me the confidence to go with my gut and keep writing even if the target audience is the total opposite of what I have previously written for. A few years ago, I wouldn’t have even dreamt of writing this monstrosity, let alone publishing it, but now I’m excited to talk about it and see where it’ll lead me. Even if it never reaches the level of fans that the Black Parade series has, I still feel like it was the right way to go, to explore something I find fascinating even if I’m one of few. I think that’s something everyone should do—chasing after the thing that gets their heart racing and makes their eyes all bright and shiny, in spite of its unpopularity.

Make yourself a schedule and stick to it. My God, this is one of the hardest things I’ve had to deal with over the past year. Between a full time job, a miniature social life, and a crazy cat, it’s been extremely troublesome to schedule writing time and advertising/marketing time. What I’ve learned mostly over my fourth year is that the only way not to plummet to the bottom of Amazon’s slushpile is literally weekly promotions that rotate about every 90 days. I hate it. It’s so stressful to have to plop down on my bed for an hour and pay for promotions, but it’s how I keep bread and Nutella on the table. (*sobs* I MISS BREAD I’M ON A DIET AND I WANT MY PASTRY BACK WAAAAH!) That old saying “you gotta spend money to make money” is 100% true of self-publishing.

You have to invest in marketing or you’re going to starve. You have to schedule time to write, edit, and publish or you’ll miss every single deadline you set. Authors often think we have way more time than we actually do. Life finds a way to screw you over. It’s Murphy’s law. You have to come up with crazy contingencies and have backup plans for your writing career or you’ll be doomed. (I mean, the last Dresden Files novel came out three years ago and I’m still waiting…just sayin’, Jim Butcher. Get crackin’ or I’m gonna pull a Misery on you.) At the end of the day, your readership doesn’t care how hard you work or how difficult your life has been. Make time. Literally just conjure it out of thin air or you’ll never get another word on a page.

I’ve banged my head on almost every damn hard surface there is in self-publishing. Oh well. Time to put my helmet back on and keep stumbling along towards year five.

Thanks for being here with me in the dark, readers.