5 things I learnt self-publishing my first novel

In February this year I self-published a mystery novel called Confluence. It’s been a fun, daunting and enlightening journey. Here are 5 key lessons I learnt along the way

1. Don’t use the first result on Google as the service to help you self-publish

I really should have known better. I work in the (magazine) publishing industry for God’s sake! But when, in Christmas 2021, my husband forwarded me this compelling Tweet and said, “why don’t you just self-publish that novel you wrote?” I decided the only way it was going to happen (between work and kids and a penchant for procrastination) was to make it as low-input for me as possible.

So… I had a manuscript… in a word doc… that I wanted to publish on Kindle, so what service did I go with? Word-2-Kindle, naturally! 

SEO: 1, me: 0.

I was very happy with the cover design… eventually!

Well, not 0 exactly. I did have my novel published by February 2022. The Word-2-Kindle service had some positives – they were competitively priced, responsive, friendly to deal with, and they seemed to have their processes down-pat. And I still use them when I have to make edits, but that’s also because I don’t have access the editable design files, which is also a negative. More negatives incoming:

The quality of the work I’m afraid was poor. 

I filled in the cover design briefing form and the result I received was a bit like what you get when you feed a prompt to those AI art tools (you know, ‘a banana eating a frog sitting on a windmill’ kind of thing). They had picked up keywords but completely missed the point. 

In the end I specified the exact image, fonts, provided screenshots of a comparable cover I wanted them to emulate and spelt out exactly where I wanted all elements of the copy to go. I was happy with the result, but I didn’t feel I had benefited from any graphic design creative prowess on their part, rather provided detailed instructions to someone with access to InDesign (which I also have access to).

I was similarly disappointed with the editing, unfortunately. I hate to say this as the editor herself provided a lovely review of the novel in her comments – so maybe, having read that, I was blinded by my ego when her track-changed document had so little red. Well of course, unsurprising, I’m amazing! The manuscript is clean and perfect and ready to publish.

Alas, as countless readers have helpfully let me know since (usually the only downside in otherwise pretty consistently positive reviews): typos and errors are still lurking. That fact is embarrassing and disheartening, and costing me money every time I find more and have to ask my ‘Project Manager’ at Word-2-Kindle to weed them out.

Next time I’ll seek out and engage an individual graphic designer for the cover and contents (or maybe do it myself on Canva), and the same for a book editor. Using a middle man was a quick, efficient bult ultimately poor idea.

2. Put in the leg work getting reviews and reviewers, early on

After publishing, I knew that part of my marketing would be getting reader reviewers. I hoped between my blog followers, friends and family and the small handful of book reviewers I contacted, followed by the power the word-of-mouth, I would have this covered off. And reviews did trickle in, but they quickly tapered off. This is frustrating when you realise what a powerful potential marketing tool they are. And the reviews I did get were consistently positive enough that I wanted more readers to find and review it. What I found was that finding new readers for a small, new, self-published author can genuinely be like getting blood from a stone.

So recently, I got my hands on a copy of the Book Blogger Directory and worked my way through A to Z (of course only contacting the relevant blogs who stated they were accepting review requests, etc.). I emailed off cover JPGs, synopses, free ebook copies for review, URLs social handles etc, trying to make the process as easy as possible for them. Mainly because these bloggers are Under. The. Pump with reading promises already into the hundreds. But the process is starting to result in real, honest reviews from strangers (the best kind), and reading them is so rewarding.

Other review avenues I tried with this book: Book Sirens. You sign up for an account ($10 from memory) then pay $2 for every review of your book (this covers the cost of the service and doesn’t go to the reviewer). I received I think three reviews this way. It’s a nice idea, and a pretty simple, affordable way to connect reviewers and publishers.

I also splashed out and purchased a Kirkus ReviewKirkus Reviews is a literary magazine which is mainly aimed at and used by the publishing industry. This New Yorker article does a good job of explaining what they’re all about. As an Indie author you pay a lot of money for a pretty formulaic (but honest) review, but the selling point is that they are respected in the industry, and can be good to add to your cover art. And I was pleased that my review appeared in the September 15 edition of the magazine – which isn’t a given and apparently relatively rare for Indie authors.

3. Put yourself out there – including with a launch event!

Selling Confluence at the Tassie Indie Author Book Fair

It took some convincing to self publish, and then it took some more convincing to self-promote. After all, most people don’t get into writing fiction (which involves hours and hours hanging out with your imagination, alone in a room forgetting to stay hydrated) to have to put themselves ‘out there’ in front of others. But even if your book is published by a traditional publisher, if you are a new or unknown author, you will be expected to do a lot of the leg work in your marketing. In fact, publishing contracts are easier to come up with if you already have a big existing online audience or network – as a completely separate variable to the quality of the book itself. 

In reality, when people ask me about my book or want to discuss the story, I want to shrink away. How do you discuss or explain the product of a process that is so intuitive, so driven by the subsconscious? It always feels like post-rationalising to me. 

But – just as I was convinced to self publish, I was convinced to self-market, and this included a launch. 

First, I guess you could say I had a ‘soft-launch’ at the Tassie Indie Author Book Fair which took place in May this year at Brook Street Pier in Hobart. I set up my table with a pile of books and my A3 poster (designed myself this time!). I’d been instructed to bring 10 to 20 copies and told to expect to sell 5-10 of those. I arrived with my 20 copies and a serious case of imposter syndrome looking at all the other set ups. 

But then… I sold out! Every last copy! 

It was at that fair that I also met the owner of The Hobart Bookshop, the lovely Bronwyn, and in follow-up was able to organise to hold my ‘real’ launch there. In the lead up, I posted flyers around town, advertised it on my own social media as well as the bookshop’s website and social media. And… a very small handful of mostly friends and family showed up..! (As one of those friends pointed out, holding it soon after Dark Mofo, when everyone was evented-out, was perhaps a mistake). Still, it was a lovely evening, and somewhat out of character I really enjoyed the chance to discuss my book (in an interview/Q&A format), and in hindsight the marketing of the event in the lead up was the real value. (Cafes and libraries won’t let you put a picture of your book cover up on their wall just because you published it – but they may well be happy to do so if it’s to promote a local event.) 

4. You’ll find an amazing community (at least I did)

One of the best things about stepping out of your comfort zone is that you soon find there are so many people willing to help and support you. To start, I originally heard about the Tassie Indie Author Book Fair through a good friend in the industry who knew I’d self-published (His name is Meng and he’s a Tassie-based freelance graphic designer – check him out here). At the Fair I met not only the owner of the Hobart Bookshop which spawned my launch event, but also several other local independent authors.

One author I met was Rauiri Murphy, who wrote Two Sets of Books, a series of short stories all set in Hobart public library, recently long-listed for the Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Award. We exchanged books (and reviews), and then I more or less cold-called on him after the event, when the bookshop suggested I find someone to interview me at my launch, and he not only agreed to help but truly went above and beyond for a more-or-less stranger. I was amazed and so grateful!

Other people in the community have been equally generous and supportive. I was invited onto local radio for an interview, which included an opportunity to give away copies to local readers. 

I feel if I hadn’t self-published, I wouldn’t have met or become a part of most of these supportive and generous individuals and communities.

5. Keep writing your next novel!

There was a period of time when focussing on publishing and marketing Confluence provided a nice distraction from working on any other project… but you can’t be an author, whether self- or traditionally published, without being a writer first. So it’s important to return back to that fundamental place of being a creator – and that’s regardless of how your first effort goes.

I have learnt a lot from this process, it’s been difficult, enjoyable, scary, fun. There are many things I’d do differently were I to self publish again, but thinking about that now feels like putting the cart before the horse.

I’m working on two separate pieces – one I’ve put on the backburner as another idea came into being and is exciting me a lot more. So… watch this space!

Oh, and please buy a copy of Confluence and leave your review online!

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2 thoughts on “5 things I learnt self-publishing my first novel

  1. Gemma’s experience about self-publishing caught & held my interest, as a conversation with a friend does, when they are open and entertaining. It also reveals a sure grasp of the skills and professional approach to writing success.

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