Building a Career as an Indie Author: First Steps

The sheer amount of effort it takes to properly launch even one book explains why there are so many single-shot authors out there: those who do the work may flounder when that first book doesn’t take off like they’d hoped; those who just toss a manuscript together and throw it up on Amazon without any promotion at all often turn around and say that self-publishing is a fool’s game. Both of these sorts of authors would be far more successful if they kept their focus on their long term careers rather than immediate gratification.

Just finding the time and the creative energy to write can be a struggle. The thought of scraping together more time and energy for all of the work surrounding self-publishing can be flat-out discouraging. The key to being able to stay with it is to understand that, unless you already have large blocks of time available to do all of this work, you’ll be facing a bit of a lifestyle change. Taking it in steps will help make it a positive, exciting change instead of just one more obligation.

These first few articles are for new self-publishers and for authors who may have put up a book (or a few) but haven’t really gotten into the business end of things.  Managing a serious career as an independent author is a daunting prospect for some; many writers find it hard to even begin. If that sounds like you, this series will help.

Before we talk about the mechanics of posting and selling your book, you’re going to want to build up your business sense. Moving between the creative and the business worlds is very difficult for a lot of people. You can do some groundwork right now to make that transition easier. Take notes; you have homework for each of these steps.

1) Get Organized

25945777990_77de170bf0_z“Treat your writing as a business” isn’t exactly helpful advice if you’ve never run a small business before. One of the best steps you can take toward developing the skills you’ll need is to set some time aside 4 or 5 times a week to work on your writing career. If you’re anything like me, it can be very hard to get that time. To eke it out, you may need to get organized in other parts of your life.

At the very least, when you do sit down to work on your writing career you will need to have an efficient approach to studying the things you need to know. Part of this time should be actual writing; the rest ought to be devoted to learning everything you can about the techniques and business of self publishing.

You’ll notice I didn’t suggest setting aside time to write every day. Consistent production is critical to your success, but it isn’t the only important factor; and, as Daniel José Older noted back in 2015, the emotional pressure artists put on themselves to produce each and every day can actually stifle creativity and suck all of the joy out of the work. Even self-published powerhouse Chuck Wendig doesn’t advocate writing every single day (warning: strong language at the link).

Writing, publishing, and marketing your own work can be a grind sometimes. But if it’s something you always face with trepidation, you may not be giving yourself the time you need for reflection and just plain living – all of the everyday stuff that makes for better (and happier!) writers. Take a day. Or three. When you’re ready to come back, spend one more day not writing; use that time to work on a plan that will help you stay on track during your writing-and-business-of-writing time.

Not everyone’s lifestyle is easy to compartmentalize, and that’s okay. The main goal here is to start focusing on your long-term writing and business goals, not work out every detail right now. There are tons of resources online to help you get more organized. Here are a few:

Online Calendars/Scheduling Tools
Many of these offer online and/or phone pop-up reminders. These are all free or have trial periods of at least 2 weeks so you can really test-drive them.

  • Google Calendar – free with a Gmail account.
  • Routine Factory – $45/year as of 5/1/16; 2-week trial (no credit card required); works best when used together with a smartphone.
  • Online Clock – this is a free, no-frills online alarm clock; if you spend hours at a time on the computer, it’s a great way to quickly set an alarm as a reminder to switch tasks or take a break.

Reduce Distractions
Obsessively checking social media or email can eat into even the most productive writer’s time. If you don’t have a ‘writing only’ computer, these tools will temporarily block or disconnect your internet connection so you can focus.

  • Cold Turkey – free; paid options ($19-$29)  have extra features.
  • Stop Procrastinating – $4.99 (one-time payment), has a 90-day money-back guarantee.
  • Freedom – 7-session free trial; then $2.42/month.

Learn the Basics
Organization isn’t something that’s taught in school or even in many of our homes. If you’ve never been successful with personal time management, these articles can help.

Homework: Come up with an action plan for finding the time to write, and to work on the business of writing. If your home life or day job is chaotic or stressful, your first step is to find a bit of time for self-care. You can’t write or learn effectively if you’re too overwhelmed to think.

2) Get Educated

Yes, that’s what this series is for…but there are several well-respected industry blogs you should also follow if you’re serious about becoming an independent author. Here are just a few of my favorites:

  • Kris Writes (Kristine Kathryn Rusch) – her site has a wealth of essential information not only for self-publishers, but for freelancers and independent creatives of all types.
  • The Book Designer (Joel Friedlander) – one of the best all-around blogs for indie writers to follow.
  • The Creative Penn (Joanna Penn) – this blog covers a lot of best practices for self-published authors; when the time comes, this will be one of your best resources for marketing your books.

Catching up on years of blog posts from these pros will take time, but it is absolutely worth the effort. Having a regular reading schedule will help you retain the huge amount of material you’ll find. For example, I set aside two hour-and-a-half blocks of time each Wednesday to read industry blogs. (Kristine Kathryn Rusch updates the business portion of her blog on Wednesdays; after reading her latest posts I catch up on the others).

Homework: Find at least one industry blog to follow, and read at least one article from that blog before next Thursday. If the article has advice that you’re inclined to follow, think about how that advice will fit into your overall business plan.

3) Get a support system

Making the move from writing to becoming a professional writer is going to be a lot of work, especially if your first book comes out in a few months or you have significant day job and/or family obligations. Unless you’re the kind of person who absolutely thrives under pressure, you’ll want to scrap it all at least once. Even when you power through those moments, trying to absorb so much new information and learn so many new skills in such a short span of time may cause you to miss something important. This is where a strong support system comes in.

If you have family or friends who can act as a support system in real life, that’s wonderful. You’ll want to turn to them for practical support – scheduling and fun down time and talking you through the inevitable hard drive crash (it happens to all of us – if it’s never happened to you then a) you’ve been very lucky and b) it’s almost your turn; back everything up today). Unless your family and friends are publishing professionals, though, you’ll need additional help.

Local writers’ groups are a great place to find support, and you’ll often find people who are going through learning processes similar to yours. A strong writers’ group will provide insightful feedback on your works in progress, and will give you the opportunity to learn what makes a good story by picking apart other people’s work. Unless everyone in your group has published multiple books themselves, though, you’ll need even more assistance.

Online support groups are wonderful for authors who are just starting out. In the best of them, you’ll find people who encourage newer writers and who are willing to build professional relationships. The largest communities have thousands of members, so there’s an excellent chance you’ll also find authors who’ve done exactly what you’re trying to do; reading their own accounts of their experiences can help you avoid costly mistakes.

Here are some of the best online communities for independent authors:

  • kboards – the focus here is on authors who publish via Kindle, but this community is also full of people who have experience publishing to every other platform you can think of.
  • Goodreads Authors/Readers – for writers of all genres. Some boards within this community are designed to connect readers with writers, but this is also a great support group for writers at all stages of their careers.
  • Absolute Write: Self-Publishing Forum – this is part of Absolute Write’s popular Water Cooler forum. The community here is enthusiastic and helpful.
  • Facebook also has hundreds of writers’ groups, and each one has a particular focus. You can find one that works for you by typing your genre of choice or something you need or are trying to accomplish (writing prompts; book marketing; etc.) into the search bar at the upper left-hand corner of the Facebook newsfeed screen.

It’ll take some time to learn which group is best for you, but once you’ve found a community you like you’ll appreciate the support and advice. It also doesn’t hurt to have a bunch of your peers cheer you on as you reach each milestone!

Homework: Read through a few threads on each community listed above. Choose one to join and create an account. Comment or ask a question on one thread.

8540480427_a09fec5eef_z“But all I want to do is write!”

Oh, honey. So do we all. But even in that idyllic not-so-long-ago when traditional publishers took on most of the work of book production, the authors who had successful careers were able to do so because they understood the business side of things. If you get organized, get educated, and get your support system in place now, down the line you’ll not only get to write more, you’ll get paid more for it.


Photos by Dean Hochman (Flickr); used here under a Creative Commons license. In the first image, the original was altered slightly.

Dora Badger
Dora Badger is a writer and designer living in Detroit. Her short stories can be found in several small press publications, and her books Lemonade Songs, Charley Cat's Carnival: A Dark And Bloody Business, and more can be found on Amazon.

2 Responses to “Building a Career as an Indie Author: First Steps

  • Your intro to Building a Career as an Indie Author pulled no punches. I understand about the “down days,” when it seems so unfair that authors who are already spilling their hearts out have to become expert marketers too. Sometimes I tell myself that, if I really had known how hard it is to self-publish, I wouldn’t have started on that road. But then the black mood passes, and I realize I like the freedom way too much.

    • The freedom is fantastic! One thing people forget (or maybe never knew) is that many successful authors were involved in the business end of their writing careers long before ebooks existed. The digital revolution in publishing has definitely increased the amount of work a writer’s responsible for, but the biggest changes have really been to the type of work one has to do to build a career.

      I’m glad you felt I didn’t sugarcoat things. I honestly believe the main difficulty many newer authors face is not realizing the amount of work that goes into good book design and effective marketing. I think they can also underestimate the amount of time it can take for an author to find the right audience. As a result, too many talented people give up if the first book doesn’t do well right out of the gate.

      The perception that you have someone validating your sense of self-worth as a writer may be the biggest benefit traditional publishers still have to offer most authors. IMO, though, feeling one has a corporate cheerleader is not really worth navigating the increasingly common rights grabs or the royalty shell games so many authors are currently facing.

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