Tuesday 23 April 2013

Indie Author Advice Series #2- Everything I Wish I Knew When I Started Writing

Originally posted on I Read and Tell on April 4th, 2013.
When I first started writing I was clueless. Completely. Now I’m slightly better than clueless, but not by much. I’ve picked up some things along the way from struggling Indie to fulltime (still struggling) Indie, but there’s an infinite amount of more stuff to learn. For those of you who are just starting out, or are still in the early days of having published a book or two, if you’re even a little above the clueless level then you’re better off than I was. Even still, everyone needs a little advice sometimes, and I’m more than happy to share a few of the things I’ve picked up along the way, particularly everything I wish I knew when I started writing. I’ve broken it up into three sections, one on Writing, one on Publishing, and one on Promoting, so you can skip to whichever of the three you’re most interested in. I hope you find this useful!

1) Writing Stuff: Strangely enough, most of the questions I get from other Indies are about promoting and publishing books, rather than about writing them. That worries me, as publishing and promoting is far easier than the writing part. There’s a reason that finding a publisher is so competitive and challenging: because writing is extremely hard! Although talent is important, there’s far more to it than just the natural ability to tell a story. Constantly improving one’s writing is far and away the most important thing when starting out, and your readers will love you for it! Here are a few tips I’ve picked up along the way:

-Read, read, read! Be a reader and a lover of books first. This is not to say to plagiarize and steal ideas; rather, it is to recognize the varying styles of the writers you love, understand how they bring out emotions in you, pay attention to the techniques they use for creating suspense. Be a critical reader, and use the critical comments you have toward other authors’ books to critique your own writing.

-Read books about writing!  Learn how to improve your writing from the experts, the ones who have spent years and years mastering their craft and are now willing to share their secrets. A couple books I recommend for any Indie starting out are On Writing by Stephen King and Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass. Both will help you far more than I can!

-Dialogue tags! The quickest way to be pegged as an amateur is also one of the simplest things to improve. Do you feel the need to constantly change up your dialogue tags to something other than “she said”? If so, stop! Pay attention to this when you read books by your favorite authors. You’ll find that the vast majority of the time the dialogue tag will be “she said”, rather than something abnormal, like “she noted”, “she shouted” or “she commented”. There’s very little reason to stray from the basic “she said”, except when you really want to draw attention to the manner in which the dialogue is being spoken. In most cases, the way the dialogue is written should clearly show the way in which the speaker said it. In many cases, you don’t even need a tag at all, as long as it’s clear who’s doing the speaking.

-Adverb hunting! Overuse of adverbs is another thing I’ve had to learn the hard way. Using adverbs too much can really dumb down your writing and make you start to tell the reader instead of showing them (more on that later). A good tip is to watch out for them after dialogue tags. Again, they should be used sparingly, and only when emphasizing the manner in which a certain action is undertaken. For example, “she said softly.” Do a search for that one in your manuscript and see how many hits you come up with. Or maybe yours is “she said sarcastically.” In both those instances you’ve just told the reader how the quote was being said, rather than letting them figure it out on their own. The dialogue itself as well as the context should generally show the reader how something is being said. If it’s not, then that’s what you should be working on, rather than taking a shortcut and adding an adverb to the end of every action.

-Show vs. Tell! I’m sure you’ve heard this one a million times. I know I have, and yet I still find myself making the mistake again and again. Why? Because it’s hard and it takes practice! Read as much as you can about this and practice it in your writing. A good way is to write a chapter and then go through it with a fine tooth comb. Am I telling the reader everything, or do they get a chance to feel it, to figure things out on their own. In case you’re still scratching your head, here are some simple examples. “I was scared.” Not very interesting or fun to read. Try this instead: “Sweat trickled from my scalp and down the nape of my neck. With each step, my knees wobbled, as I fought the urge to look down. Under my breath, I whispered, “Pleasegodpleasegodpleasegod,” in time with my racing heart.” Better? I hope you think so. There are a million other ways you could write the same thing, many of which would be much better than what I came up with off the top of my head. Here’s another example I found in my own writing. “The steel, electrified fence surrounded the complex, keeping the riffraff in and the rubberneckers from getting too close.” Terrible? Eh, probably not. But could it be better? I thought so. I can’t remember exactly what I changed it to, but I wanted the electrified fence to come to life, so I put in some additional details like, “The steel fence surrounding the complex buzzed a constant warning to Stay away! both to the riffraff inside and the rubberneckers beyond.” Not a huge change, but do you see the difference? I’m not telling you the fence is electrified, I’m showing you.

-Typos! Personally, I believe that Indies should be held to the same standards as traditionally published books. This is hard! You might not be able to afford a copyeditor, but there are still other ways to limit your typos to the bare minimum. 5 or less in a full length novel is a good goal and few enough that your readers will likely miss them too. 2 or less is even better. Much more than that and it gets distracting and frustrating to the reader, who took a risk on reading your book and has the right to expect a certain level of quality. If you can’t afford a copyeditor, read your final manuscript at least 5 times (which you should do regardless), and ask at least 5 friends to proofread for typos. That will go A LONG way toward reducing your typos to a reasonable level.

These are just a few of the many tips I could give you about writing, I encourage you to read more about it from true experts on the subject, it will be well worth your time.

2) Publishing Stuff: Ugh. Publishing. Painful? Yes. Less painful than it was ten years ago? YES! So be happy that you live in a day and age where you can publish your ebooks with just a click of a button, make changes to books quite easily, and even publish print-on-demand books! Here are a few things I wish I knew when I started:

-The broader the distribution the better: Do NOT enroll in KDP Select by Amazon Kindle. I can’t stress this enough. It sounds like a good deal in a lot of ways, but it will alienate your readers who don’t have Kindles, many of whom might actually be quite anti-Kindle. There are so many types of ereaders out there that you want to allow every single reader to get their hands on your books. There are many ways to accomplish this, but here’s my approach to ebook distribution: Publish on Kindle, publish on Nook, publish on Smashwords.com, which will then distribute to Apple iBooks, Sony, Kobo, Diesel and a bunch of others. Keep in mind, the more places you publish on your own (by setting up an account with them and going through the process, rather than letting Smashwords distribute to them), the less money you’ll lose. Smashwords takes 15% of all sales through their distribution network, so you effectively pay them for their help in distributing. That’s why I publish to Kindle and Nook on my own, because I sell most of my books there. Kobo and Apple iBooks are a close third and fourth, but I just don’t have the time or energy to do those myself, but I’d encourage you to do it if you can.

Also, some Indies are steering away from Smashwords because they don’t have DRM (digital rights management), which means that once a reader buys your book, they can then download it in any format and share it all over the internet or e-mail it to friends, etc etc. That’s a real risk, but I’m telling you not to fear it. Piracy will happen. You can try to control it, but I urge you not to overly concern yourself with it, because the people who would download your book illegally probably would never pay for it in the first place. Smashwords is a great resource and will really help with your INTERNATIONAL book sales. Most of the domestic platforms have limited distribution internationally, whereas anyone in the world can buy your book on Smashwords. At least 50% of my international sales come from Smashwords, a significant chunk.

-Get your formatting right! A poorly formatted book, both in ebook and print form, will frustrate and turn off a reader pretty quickly. Test your formatting on as many of your distribution platforms as possible. If it don’t look pretty, don’t publish it! Most distribution platforms will have handbooks on how to format appropriately, most of the time just using MS word.

-The price is right! How much are you charging for your books? This is a huge decision, one that can make or break your sales. I strongly urge that you price your debut novel at $.99. I know, I know, you make almost nothing for all your hard work, but it’s a marathon, not a sprint. You are looking for lifelong readers, who will tell their friends, and buy every other book you publish from this point on. So yes, you have to practically give your books away (and actually give your books away, more on this later) at this point. Just bite the bullet and do it. If you’ve written an awesome book, you’ll get yourself a lot of new fans. For sequels of your debut series, I recommend $2.99 so you get higher royalty rates and make a little money from sales to your now-loyal fans. Once you’ve established yourself a little and have written subsequent books/series, considering bumping your pricing up to $3.99 or $4.99. Personally, I don’t plan on going higher than $3.99 in the foreseeable future. Remember why we’re Indies, we have low overhead and are able to give our readers a better price for their entertainment! Be proud of that and don’t take advantage of their loyalty by trying to price like you’re a bestseller!

Spend time on the extras! By extras I mean the stuff other than the actual book. The dedication, the About the Author, the Acknowledgements. And be sure to list your other books or Coming Soon! books , as well as a sneak peek of your next book if you have one. People DO read this stuff and they actually care about it, so make it count! Oh, and also include links to your social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and your blog.

That’s it for publishing, on to everyone’s favorite, promoting!

3) Promoting Stuff: I have to admit, I’m stealing this section from a blog I did a while back, but it really did have all my tricks on how I’ve been able to effectively promote my books. I’ve set it up as a list of Dos and Don’ts:

1. DON’T join book groups or chat sites with the intention of gaining new readers! Book lovers don’t join groups on sites such as Goodreads to have authors barraging them with advertising for their new “5 star YA paranormal romance novel.” Time and time again I see Indie authors join a new group, introduce themselves as I.L. Ikebooks, author of The Hideous Transformation of Zod, and then proceed to dump links to their blog, Facebook page, Amazon, etc, asking readers to check out their book “if interested.” Sorry, but even as an Indie author myself, those types of introductions annoy me! I will never react well to that method and I believe most other readers would agree. Look, I’m going to belabor this first point because it’s an important one. This method does NOT work. It makes you look like a spammer who’s only joining the group to promote yourself. Of course you’re proud that you wrote and published a book, and you’re desperate to attract new readers (I am too!), but this is simply not the way to go about it. The couple of readers who might take the bait and read your book is not worth the number who will be annoyed by your shameless self-promotion and avoid your books. Becoming a successful Indie is a marathon not a sprint. Join groups that are about the type of books you like to read (and probably write too), and become part of the community, as a reader!! Over time, you’ll make friends by adding value to the group through your recommendations and comments, and people will click on you and check out your books. I repeat, do NOT post anything about your book unless it has gone through a formal program in the group (more on this in DOS 1 and 3 below).

2. This one goes hand in hand with the first point on self-promoting, but DON’T recommend your own books either in chat rooms or via Goodreads Book Recommendation function. Recommending books is what people who read your books do. Even if you really believe someone will like your book because you see a reader is looking for a “YA dystopian book with lots of action and romance” and your book fits that mold perfectly, you’ve simply got to avoid the temptation. Instead, recommend another book that you like that fits the type they’re looking for. The goodwill will go a long way, they will appreciate it, maybe click on you, maybe buy your book. It might take weeks or months or even years, but each little bit of goodwill adds up over time. And please, please, please, DON’T create alter ego accounts to self-promote your books. Not only is it unethical, but it’s downright wrong. The bad karma will get you eventually!

3. DON’T overreact to negative reviews. This is one of the hardest ones for me, especially when the negative review contains lies or misleading information about my book. My first reaction is always to scream “Foul!” and message the reviewer right away to point out the errors in their review. A few months ago I received a 2-star review (one of the few I’ve received for The Moon Dwellers), and it mentioned that there were a number of distracting typos in the book. I was livid! Not only for me, because I’m completely OCD about typos and even my early drafts have very few, but because my incredible copyeditor, Christine LePorte, has such an eye for detail that my books rarely have typos, and if they do, they’re limited to one or two at the most. This particular review was also fairly mean spirited, but it also had some really good factual points. In the end, I left it alone, moved on with my life, and focused on the fair and honest reviews that I was getting on a daily basis, most of which were positive. If I had responded to that particular reviewer, they might have ignored me and that would be the end of it. OR, they might have posted something about what a jerk I was on their blog, Facebook page, or Twitter. The reputational damage could have been irreparable as the book community labeled me as a close-minded bully. My advice: try to glean what constructive criticism and positive feedback you can from every review, but do not throw a hissy fit if you read something you don’t like. Not everyone will like your books! That’s a fact that you have to get used to sooner or later. (TIP: Read some of the negative reviews of a book you really like. Even the best books get negative reviews.)

4. DON’T expect your first book to be a bestseller! I did, and I was sorely disappointed. And then I realized how many flaws it had, how much I still had to learn, that becoming a really, truly fantastic writer—the kind who writes bestsellers—meant a lot of work and practice and commitment. I took what I learned from my first trilogy and wrote a better series the second time around. And my third series will be even better still. It’s all about improving with each and every go around, showing your readers that you’re committed to giving them the best possible reading experience whenever they pick up one of your books.

1. DO giveaway as many free ebooks (and print copies when a good opportunity arises) as possible in the early stages, particularly with your first book and for any first books in your next series. Remember, the goal early on is not to make money, there are very few Amanda Hocking stories out there. Most authors build up fans over time. The goal is to give yourself as many opportunities to capture the precious time of the millions of readers out there, who have millions of choices in what they read. Offering free books is a great way to do that. I’ve found the quickest way to DO that is by enrolling in Read to Review (RtR) programs in the many groups on Goodreads. Join the groups that are in your books’ genre (for example I’m a committed member in many Goodreads YA paranormal and dystopian groups), and enroll your book in the groups’ Read to Review program. You set how many books to giveaway to members in the group, and in exchange, they give you reviews. (I gave away 50 e-copies of The Moon Dwellers to 10 different groups on Goodreads as part of the launch. The reviews I got from those giveaways solidified it early on as a good book. Then I gave away 50 more to my fan group) It’s an awesome way to get new fans and also start to build up credibility. I don’t know about you, but I’m much more likely to read a 4-star book with 200 reviews than a 5-star book with 6 reviews that are probably friends and family.

2. DO contact book bloggers! There are hundreds of book bloggers out there, some big, some small, some new, some established, but all looking to read quality books and blog about them to their readers. With my first book, Angel Evolution, I contacted over 200 book bloggers, many of whom accepted a free ebook in exchange for a review on their blog. That was the single most crucial thing I did to get started. Most all book bloggers have review policies, read them before you contact them. If their policies say they don’t accept Indie authors then don’t contact them. If they say they only accept print copies then don’t offer them an ebook. Save your print copy budget for the biggest bloggers if you can get them. Giveaway free ebooks to any other blogger who agrees to read it. The more copies you get out there in the early stages, the better chances you have of getting positive reviews and some buzz going. Book bloggers can also host giveaways, do author interviews, or let you come on their blog and do a guest post. I’ve done over 100 giveaways, more than 75 interviews, and probably 20 guest posts on various blogs. These are all fantastic ways to get your name out there. As part of the giveaways, request that those entering the giveaway Like your Facebook page.

3. DO become part of the book community. I joined Goodreads when I first started writing. I was somewhat active, but not extremely active (I was too busy wasting my time playing Angry Birds. OK, OK, I still waste a fair amount of time playing AB). I kind of flew under the radar for a while. I made a few friends, but mostly just acquaintances. Thankfully, I didn’t try to push my books so I didn’t get a reputation as a spammer. But I didn’t really take advantage of the awesomeness of Goodreads until April of this year. I realized then that the little time I was spending on Goodreads was one of my favorite times of the day. So I started spending more time commenting in the groups I was in. I wanted to keep conversations going, talk about the books I love, meet new people, establish relationships, be a valuable part of the book community. I became one of the more active people in many of the YA groups I was in, and people started to notice. I befriended many moderators who helped set up my books in RTR programs or even as a Chapter a Day read in the groups. I didn’t promote my books AT ALL in these groups. I just participated. In less than a month my sales had tripled. Some people started calling me a Goodreads Ninja LOL! I love the nickname because I think it shows how committed I am to being everywhere readers are on Goodreads, because I’m a reader too. Do it. It will be time well spent.

4. DO set up a fan page. The key is when to set it up. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend setting it up too early on in your career. The last thing you want is for the group to be tiny, less than 50 members, with very little participation or interest. If you wait until you’ve published a couple of books, have built up some readers, and then ask some of your bigger fans to help set up and moderate a fan group, it will go over much better. This is just my opinion, although others might argue it’s good to set one up as soon as possible. My marketing team and fans set up my fan group just before the release of my 4th book, The Moon Dwellers. It debuted with just over 300 members and continues to climb.

5. DO get your books on relevant Listopia lists. I’ve added my own books to lists, but it’s definitely better if some of your readers do it for you. Moderators of your fan group or your biggest fans are good candidates. You want your book on lists that are extremely relevant to your book, so the people reading them are the target audience. For example, because The Moon Dwellers is YA dystopian, it’s been added to a number of YA dystopian lists, as well as several Books Similar to The Hunger Games lists. The Moon Dwellers is in the top twenty in most of these lists, and has even risen into the top five or to the number one spot in several, sitting with company such as Divergent, Delirium, and The Maze Runner. I’ve had a few people tell me that they found my book because they typed in The Hunger Games on Listopia and when they clicked on a few of the lists, they saw The Moon Dwellers. It was the cheapest option near the top of the list so they bought it and loved it. Then they voted for it on the list, which keeps it near the top. This works!

6. DO give your fans the chance to buy signed copies of your books from you. People LOVE signed books for their collections. Don’t try to make much (if any) money off of these. Do it because you care about your readers. Just charge them the wholesale price of your book (the price you can buy it for on Createspace or wherever you print from) plus the cost of shipping to you and shipping to them. If you want to make a small profit on these books, add a dollar or two but no more. Have your fans pay you via Paypal or whatever method is easiest for you. I’ve sold dozens of copies of my books in recent months, making minimal profits but establishing a lot of lifelong fans and friends. Oh, and remember to personalize those books! It will mean a lot more to whomever you’re giving it to if you call them by name and write a short message that includes something personal if you can, like where you met them (Goodreads, etc) or something you know about them. This is a lot of work, but the rewards are priceless.

Wow! I knew this would be a long post, because there was SO MUCH I wish I’d known when I started out. If you made it to the end, yay!!! You deserve a medal or something. And if I haven’t answered a burning question that’s been on your mind, please please please feel free to contact me using one of social networking handles included in this post, I love getting questions and meeting new people and I ALWAYS respond.

A special thanks to Reem at I Read and Tell for suggesting the topic! And as always, HAPPY READING!

David Estes


  1. Brilliant! Thank you so much :)
    ~Tim Hartley

  2. Wish I wrote books!! Excellent advice!!

  3. Great post David! I'm definitely going to keep some of your points in mind when I look over my work, she commented sincerely ;)

  4. Awesome post! I only write for my own entertainment but I may decide to use your advice someday so thanks for the knowledge!

  5. Awesome! Hope I can use your advice some day! But for now Ill just keep to reviewing!

  6. Thanks everyone, I really appreciate your comments!! I'm still learning too so we're all in this together!

  7. You are the Goodreads Ninja! ;) Great advice and I agree with everything under Promoting (which is the only topic I really know anything about!)

  8. Wow, awesome post. Im sure a lot of people will learn so much from this =D

  9. Wow thank you very much, that means a lot to me :)

  10. Great info! Confirmed some of my ideas but gave me many, many more! Thanks David!

    1. Aww thanks Andrea, I'm glad it helped! And for those of you who haven't yet, check out Andrea Murray's debut novel, Vivid, it's a great first book and you don't have to wait for the two sequels to come out, because they're already available!

  11. Looks like I'm coming to this sage advice about seven months after, but better late than never! It always means a lot when those who have "made it" can come spread the wealth by sharing their experiences. I have a number of books available and can't seem to get any attention, so I'm eager for any wisdom I can get, and yours is very wise, sir! Thank you so much.

    1. Thanks so much, J.D.! I'm so glad you found the advice valuable and I wish you all the best with your writing and publishing :) Be patient, my friend, hard work and a bit of luck will bring you success eventually.

  12. I have a hard time describing my thoughts on content, but I really felt I should here. Your article is really great. I like the way you wrote this information Landlord μΉ΄μ§€λ…Έμ‚¬μ΄νŠΈ