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Maintain social media platforms. Arrange public events. Attend conferences. Purchase paid advertising. Manage cash flow. Analyze data. Spot trends.
If that doesn’t sound like the job requirement for an author, think again. All authors have to do some marketing, but for self-publishers it’s crucial.
Shonna Slayton is one such author. She’s a homeschooling Christian mom and author of Spindle, plus other novels in the genre she calls “historical fairy tales.” After using a boutique publisher for her first three books, she’s now self-publishing through Amazon and Ingram. Slayton has learned that success in her writing “side-hustle” requires her to be both businessperson and writer.
Self-publishing isn’t a new concept. After failing to find a publisher for The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Beatrix Potter self-published in 1901. The next year a publisher that had originally rejected it picked up the story. Today Potter’s books sell more than 2 million copies each year. In 1931, Irma Rombauer and her daughter put together the illustrated cookbook The Joy of Cooking. Five years later Bobbs-Merrill Co. acquired the rights, eventually selling more than 18 million copies.
The internet and technological improvements have made self-publishing more common. In 2012, almost 400,000 self-published books had received an official International Standard Book Number, or ISBN. By 2017 just over a million had one. One reason for the increase in self-publishing is the rise of e-books. Another is the increased quality of print-on-demand technology: A company like Amazon prints a book only after receiving an order, but the quality is almost indistinguishable from a traditionally printed book, and no one has to store boxes of books. Slayton thinks self-publishing is the way of the future, simply because bookstores can only hold so many books.
Self-published authors need some business skills to market their books. For Slayton, that includes maintaining social media and scheduling book signings at local indie bookstores. She looks at her data every day to see how many books she has sold and how much she has spent on advertising. She tries to spot trends: What is working, what isn’t? Why did the paperbacks outsell the e-books in December and January?
She’s learned the value of developing good relationships with local booksellers. “You do an event, you send a thank-you note,” she says. “Be friendly. Be friendly and a good author.” Slayton says writers often ask her advice on how to self-publish. She tells them if they have the funds, they can hire a professional team similar to one a traditional publisher would provide: developmental editor, designer, proofreader. They might even be the same people who work for the publishers but take freelance work on the side.
If the aspiring authors don’t have the capital, they can start off by trading favors with other beginners who are also trying to establish themselves. “Bootstrap it,” says Slayton. “Just bootstrap and get started. Because you’ll get better, and you’ll learn as you go. And you’ll start off small, and no one will know who you are, so make all your mistakes when no one knows who you are.”
—Victoria Johnson is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute mid-career course