Marketing Advice for Self-Publishers

My best advice is to make sure that you’ve put in the time to write the best book you possibly can. Writers that don’t write don’t go far.

On the flip side, writers that don’t want to blog, do social media, interviews, or events, probably shouldn’t self-publish. Unfortunately, big houses aren’t going to do a lot for a new writer either, so you’ve got to roll up your sleeves post manuscript or you’re doomed.

Finally, there are many obstacles and nay-sayers along the way, so you better be passionate, you better love what you do, and you better believe in yourself. It also helps to enjoy the journey. If you’re focused on the money, the awards, the accolades, odds are, you’re going to be disappointed. I loved the process, and I loved writing the book.

That doesn’t mean I don’t want financial success or acknowledgement, it just means that I’m not attached to those outcomes because there are no guarantees. Often it’s the second or third book that breaks through, so play the game for the long haul, not for the fast buck. Remember, The Great Gatsby got mixed reviews when it first came out in 1925. It wasn’t until the 50s that it was truly recognized as one of the greatest American novels of all-time. Tragically, the big bucks came long after Fitzgerald’s death.

Finally, quantify your effort, measure on-line activity, open-rates, click-thrus, purchases. Try to connect the data points to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

Oh, and have fun every step of the way. It’s a new frontier, enjoy the ride.


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DIY—Create Your Own Imprint

The Pros and Cons of Starting Up

Every organization has a story, but many struggle to figure it out or how to tell it. I set up Against the Grain Communications to merge my storytelling ability with my business background. Finding the narrative is really strategy consulting. The typical MBA consultant can identify story elements, but they aren’t trained in how to shape and create that narrative. Few MBAs write award-winning novels.

Creating your own imprint gives you control and flexibility. You can get to market much faster. You can also customize the approach to meet the specific needs of the product. Of course this means you are also fully accountable. So it takes the right sort of author that’s willing to assume that responsibility.

I know for myself, it isn’t always easy to be in on a business discussion about my novel (My Life as a Clown) because it requires a different mindset. The artist needs to be protected because for the writer to dig deep beneath the leaves where it really matters, it requires a degree of openness and emotional vulnerability. When an artist is in a meeting discussing how to pitch the book, or to address negative feedback, it can be hard.

I’ve got a thick skin, but that doesn’t mean I like it. I’m okay with fair criticism, but sometimes you get a review and you know that the issue wasn’t the book—it was the reader. But reality is perception and you have to let it go. Literature should make you feel uncomfortable, but not everyone can deal with that.

Regardless of how you self-publish, you are still working with others, so use them well. There’s a tendency to want to prove that you’re smarter than them. Leverage their expertise, but recognize when something doesn’t feel right.

Take the book cover—often an author has no say on that with a big publisher. We spent a ton of time on my cover (my site has alternate covers; some were interesting, some were off base). We got the right cover by working it. I had a team of experts weighing in on what they thought, but ultimately it was my call. I did my homework, including studying iconic covers and also recognizing that the cover requirement is different today now that many people discover books digitally.

Another pitfall for self-publishers is the typo. Even eBooks from the majors have a surprising number or errors, but they can get away with that. As an indie, we had to strive for perfection because we couldn’t afford to give anyone a reason to say no.

Hiring Joy, my editor, was the most important decision I made (she worked on The Lovely Bones, among countless other best sellers). But once the manuscript was finalized, we still had a copyeditor and a proofreader review it. We then had a final stage of readers experience the book digitally and that flushed out the last of the problems. Details, details, details.

Lowering the barriers to entry has created the opportunity for me to get My Year as a Clown out there, but the field is now so crowded, this so-called level playing field is far from that because it’s more difficult to get noticed.

Our toughest obstacle is getting reviews from major publications. Virtually all refuse to look at self-published books. I understand why. There’s simply too much product out there, and to be honest, much of it isn’t ready for primetime. Having said that, the industry has changed and top reviewers are leaving themselves vulnerable to being replaced by bloggers who are more open to independent product. That blogger who is first to jump on the next The Great Gatsby will have a significant career.

Winning an IPPY is definitely an important step in separating yourself from the pack, but it still requires a lot of work, and many authors and self-publishers don’t have the energy required to keep going. Perseverance is key to getting that big break. You don’t know what’s around the bend and inevitably, that break comes out of left field. Be prepared. Be open. Stay in the game.

I get several emails every week from people saying they read my book and really enjoyed it. I often hear that the book resonated because of a part in Chuck’s journey reminded them of something in their life. With that sort of feedback, you know that it’s only a matter of time, but that doesn’t make it any easier when a reviewer says that your book looks really interesting, but they just don’t have the time to look at it.

I too have to keep reminding myself, stay in the game! I’ve created a handful of alliances with other small companies to help bring narratives to life. I’ve got an amazing branding company based in SoHo (NYC), several filmmakers and a group that helps me create websites and social media campaigns. I put this talent to use with my book. Take a look at our website, our social media, the promotional video. We gave a lot of thought to how the digital platform supports what I’m doing as a writer, musician and entrepreneur.

I set up Against the Grain Press with some friends to publish my work and other authors. At the moment, we’re going to school on what’s happening with My Year as a Clown, but our team is in place and fully capable of applying our expertise to other stories that get us excited.


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Robert Steven Williams is the author of My Year as a Clown, a novel which won a silver IPPY in the Popular Fiction category. Learn more about Robert and his book at