(I’m going to be presenting these as Unquestionable Rules that Must be Followed. Argue with me anyway. Sometimes I’m very strident and wrong at the same time, especially if I think a general tone of Absolute Authority is funnier. I am scheduling this to pop while I’m on the road, so feel free to yell at me in comments.)
You have written a book. Congratulations! I am proud of you. You have done something that you have probably wanted to do for a very long time and that many, many people have tried to do and failed.
Here is what to do next, so that when you publish your book, you have the greatest chance of your book making an impact. Note my phrasing; it’s intentional: when YOU publish your book. You’re not submitting your book to an agent or to a publishing company and waiting a year to get a quarter of a sheet of paper in an envelope as a rejection notice. You’re going to do it yourself.
STEP ONE: THREE OR FOUR YEARS PRIOR TO PUBLICATION.
Have already written and published three other books. At least.
That’s only sort of a joke.
Understand something: your first book? No one has heard of you, and no one cares. Your mom might buy a copy; she won’t read it. Your dad will pretend to read your mom’s copy, and your little brother will openly laugh at the idea of reading your stupid little story. Your friends will think you’re joking about this whole “author” thing. You need to go into your first book expecting that it will sell ten copies and then no one will ever see it again. Shoot for the stars, but plan to faceplant. It’s okay if you do! If I know one thing about writing beyond a shadow of a doubt, it is this: do not expect instant success, and plan for the long game. The trick is, once you have a handful of books out and you actually have some fans, the hope is that people will read your new book, like it, then go find the other ones. Your first book, they read, enjoy, and then forget about you when it takes another six months for #2 to come out.
Alternatively, if this is the first book you’ve published, wait until you’re close to having a second one done before you publish the first, so that you can stagger them four to six months apart. This doesn’t mean rush through something and make it garbage. I am assuming you’re good at what you do; you want to give people something new from you without making them wait so long they forget who you are. The good news about the first book is that no one will be yelling at you to get it finished.
STEP TWO: A YEAR OR SO PRIOR TO PUBLICATION.
Have a presence online. Again, you want to be able to market to beyond your family and friends, because they don’t believe you yet. Folk online didn’t know you when you were pooping yourself and have never held your hair back while you puked, so they are more likely to believe you when you give them your word-extrusions and tell them to pay you money for them. There are a lot of people who will tell you that blogs and Twitter are useless for marketing; in the right circumstances, I’m even one of them. They are useless for HAY BUY MY BOOK RIGHT NOW COMPLETE STRANGER PERSON. That’s not going to work. They’re great for building relationships with people, who you can later convert into readers. Also: Goodreads. Get a Goodreads account, and start rating what you read. You’ll need an author picture, too. Resist the urge to post something from Facebook; if you don’t do an actual sitting for it, at least dress nice and have somebody else take a headshot.
You do read a lot, don’t you? Start, if you don’t.
STEP THREE: IMMEDIATELY AFTER COMPLETING THE FIRST DRAFT, AT LEAST THREE MONTHS PRIOR TO PUBLICATION.
Find some alpha readers– at least three or four. Do you have a blog? Hit up your commenters, the people who seem to actually think you’re entertaining and smart for some reason. Someone will probably bite. Note that these folks are alpha readers. Make sure that they are aware that they’re getting a first draft, and if you can, try and focus what they’re reading for. In other words, if you want grammar help, mention it. If you’re curious about whether a subplot is necessary, ask.
It is okay to think that a part of your book is broken and needs help at this point. If that is the case, say to them “I think part of this book doesn’t work,” but don’t specify what that part is. See if your readers tell you that that same bit is broken.
Give them at least a month to read through your book. During that time, under no circumstances are you to read, edit, look at, or even think about your book. In fact, work on something completely different.
When your alphas come back to you with comments, take them seriously. Unless they are idiots, and then why did you ask them to be alpha readers? That was dumb.
STEP FOUR: TWO MONTHS PRIOR TO PUBLICATION.
Get your cover nailed down. Do not half-step on the cover. At the very least, head yourself over to SelfPubBookCovers.com and see if something over there works for you. I wrote an entire story in my first novella specifically so that I could use the cover I chose. Entertainingly, people regularly tell me it’s their favorite story in the entire collection.
Very important: Unless your job title is “graphic artist,” do not design your own cover. You suck at cover design, goddammit, and if your cover sucks no one will read your book. Get someone who knows what they are doing to design the cover, and yes, this will probably involve spending some money. Bleed for your art, dammit.
(NOTE: I am literally in pain because of the effort it is taking me to link to terrible book covers by people who were presumably serious in wanting you to read their work. I don’t want to call anyone out. But please: don’t do your own cover unless someone else has paid you for graphic art work before.)
This goes for the text on the cover, too. Shut up, you don’t know how to do it right and it’s going to look stupid. Get someone who knows what they are doing.
Incidentally, you are getting the cover as early as you can so that you can do a cover reveal on your website or on Twitter, to drum up interest in your book.
STEP FIVE: RIGHT AFTER YOU GET THAT BOOK COVER.
Create a page on Goodreads for your book. You already have an author account at Goodreads, right? If not, do that first. Once you have the cover and the page is done, start regularly pointing people at the page. You want to get as many people as possible putting that book onto their bookshelves and, hopefully, talking about it. Hopefully you’ve already got a presence over there and you’ve got people on your friends list. Go ahead and “recommend” the book to them– but do not overuse this power. Do it once, right after the book’s page is created, and maybe once more when the book is actually released. No more than that.
STEP SIX: ONE MONTH AFTER SENDING THE BOOK TO ALPHA READERS.
Reread your book. Do not read the comments yet. Just reread your book, taking notes as necessary.
STEP SEVEN: RIGHT AFTER YOU FINISH THAT REREAD.
Read their comments. Take them seriously. And take one month to fix the book, based on your own notes and their comments. Now, this commandment is one that’s going to get me flak because a lot of people’s Process simply doesn’t work like this, but to my mind the second draft should take much less time than the first. If you need to take longer, fine; adjust the other timeframes as necessary here. My second drafts are generally lightning quick even when school is in session, so a month is enough time for me. Your mileage may vary.
STEP EIGHT: ONE MONTH PRIOR TO PUBLICATION.
Send the book to your beta readers. Ideally, you have a handful more beta readers than you did alphas. Betas can be the same people as your alphas, but it’s useful to have a few who were not alpha readers. Make something clear to these people: by this point, the book is done. They are not reading it to provide you with commentary. They are there so that there are reviews available on Amazon and on Goodreads for your book on the day of release. Writing that review– and, critically, being honest about it— is their job. They are not to point out problems with the book unless it’s something 1) easily fixable and 2) egregious, like, say, claiming that Arthur Conan Doyle wrote Tarzan. (Sigh.)
Make it clear to your beta readers that you want honest reviews– but keep in mind that you get to pick these folk, so choosing people you think are likely to enjoy your work is probably a good idea. Folk can smell fluff reviews a mile away, and they won’t do you any good at all.
(Note: again, this is variable due to your own process. I’ve never written anything that needed more than two full drafts. There are plenty of people massively more successful than me who use many more drafts than that. Again, adjust other dates as needed.)
(Note also: every ebook should have a page at the back with links to your blog, your Twitter page, and every other book you’ve ever published ever. Be careful with this, and don’t link to Amazon versions on the edition you’re sending to Smashwords– you can also link to the page on your website that you created for your other books, which is probably safer.)
STEP NINE: TWO WEEKS PRIOR TO PUBLICATION.
Submit your book to Amazon, and to any other service that you can that allows pre-orders. Amazon, I know, will allow you to set up pre-orders for your book so long as they actually have an uploaded manuscript file for it. I don’t know off the top of my head if Smashwords does. Note that you’ll probably need two separate properly formatted files because Smashwords has a couple of specific requirements to them. KDP Select may also be an option for you if you want your book Amazon-exclusive; that’s up to you.
STEP TEN: DURING THE TWO WEEKS PRIOR TO PUBLICATION.
- Stay in touch with your beta readers. You want those reviews up and readable by the day the book launches, if not a day or two in advance.
- Do you have friends who write for different circles of folk than you do? See if you can get them to interview you about your book on their website.
- Create a separate page on your site for your book. Include at least your short pitch and the cover and a link to the pre-order page.
- Post an excerpt or two. Note that it’s possible that Amazon might squawk that they found a portion of your book somewhere on the Internet– but when they do this, they seem to be amenable to the answer “Yes, I posted an excerpt to this site.”
- If you’ve got a blog or a Facebook page, change your header image to part of the cover. Make sure to include the name of the book, the release date, and where it’s available– and if you can make it a clickable image, that’s good too.
- Push the pre-orders. Amazon counts all pre-orders and all first-day sales as sales on the first day, and the higher your search ranking goes on Day 1 the better job Amazon’s algorithms will do in pushing you even higher. Every pre-sale counts.
- Work on something else. Resist the temptation to change the release date because it’s done and you want it out now now now. That temptation is stupid. Squash it.
- Threaten to abandon everyone you’ve ever known and everyone who loves you if they don’t both buy your book and convince a stranger to buy it.
- How close are you with your local bookstore owner or comic shop? See if they’ll let you run a little promotion or a flyer or something like that.
- If you have the resources for print ads of some sort, do it. Do not pay anyone on Twitter for anything. Or Facebook. Facebook advertising is completely useless.
STEP ELEVEN: THE DAY OF PUBLICATION.
Reload the KDP Reports page, over and over, every five minutes, and spend the day crying, giggling maniacally, or both. Note that it is okay to be a spamming Twitter monster on the day your book is published. Update folks on sales every hour if you want. People will forgive you. Just don’t expect it to last too long.
STEP TWELVE: THE DAY AFTER PUBLICATION.
Continue promotion efforts, but keep in mind that vomiting onto Twitter going ARGLE BLARGLE BLAAH BUY MY BOOK won’t work very often.
And start working on the next book.