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  • Writer's pictureEric Knowlson

I (Prematurely) Self-Published a Novel. This is What I Learned.




Self-Publishing:

Let’s talk about the novel I self-published. This was around 2013. The first girl I ever dated, you could call her my high-school sweetheart, had just committed suicide due to untreated Bi-Polar Disorder. Even though we broke up around 2011, I still considered her one of my best friends. We’d been together in some format since senior year of high-school, 2005. We both wanted to be authors, but she was always a better writer than me. I was already working on a book, but when she passed it became all the more urgent to write. I felt I like I owed it to her, by virtue of surviving, to become the writer she could have been, but now never would be. I, and many others, thought she was a genius. If events were slightly changed, she would have written the next ‘great American novel’. I can easily imagine her name, Katayoon Kia, surrounded by numerous accolades, prizes and statements of praise.
When she died, a piece of me died with her. I know this statement sounds, cliché, hackneyed and unbelievable, but it’s true. There’s a part of me that left with her; I felt it and knew she was gone before I had any other reason to think so. I believe this happened because we were so intertwined —perhaps to an unhealthy, co-dependent level. This experience and romance became the basis for my first novel: two lovers whose souls became attached. Two people sharing a single soul and all the issues and beauty this occurrence would cause.
Without having this book to write and focus on, my grief may have overwhelmed me. I put so much of myself into it and was now ready to share it with the world. But I was impatient. I wanted it out there now! I didn’t want to wait and try to find a publisher, so I self-published through Amazon Kindle and CreateSpace. I figured it would sell and there wouldn’t be any problems. I now laugh at my naiveté. If Katayoon had still been alive, she would have torn the book apart. She was one of my harshest critics which incidentally made me a better writer. She helped me edit my poem To Love a Ghost the night before she died. A few years later that poem was published by Coffin Bell Journal —read here.
But anyways, I titled the novel Statues Beneath the Blossoms (SBTB for short) and was ready to publish. I’d researched self-publishing and had correctly formatted the book. I’d read the manuscript to the point of exhaustion, but didn’t hire a professional editor. I had friends and family read through and edit mistakes. Some were good editors and caught many typos, but none commented on the story’s contents. If I would have hired a professional copy-editor and waited to publish I could have ended up with a better-quality piece of writing. But I was impetuous and thought I knew it all. I didn’t yet know the benefits of letting a work ‘simmer’ and then returning to it a few months later. If I did, I would have seen many of my mistakes and been able to fix them before I sent the book out.
Not surprisingly, when I published the book sales were minimal. I even paid for some advertising, but that didn’t work too well either. The most success I had was buying discounted print copies from CreateSpace and selling them to local bookstores. The bookstores sold out, but they didn’t buy that many copies to begin with. At least I knew the book design was professional enough to be bought in person. Besides that, I felt like a failure and was very disappointed. To be honest, I still get waves of embarrassment when I think about the book.

What Happened and What Could I Have Done Better?

One of my biggest problems was quality. With my impatience, I published something that closely resembled a typo-free first or second draft (which is what it was). On Kindle, I watched as people started reading the book, but then never finished. I even had promotion days when the book was free to download and barely anyone took advantage. All this was discouraging, but a good lesson to always have a professional copy-editor look over your work. And be patient. I’ve learned that writing evolves and grows over a period of time. Like a pregnancy, if you deliver too early, there will be a litany of problems.
Next, regardless of quality, I was marketing the novel to the wrong genre. While also trying to be too many things at once. I listed my work under the tag of Magic Realism, a genre that leans towards the literary spectrum. Literary books don’t seem to do as well when they’ve been self-published —of course there are exceptions. Genre (fantasy, horror, romance) books seem to do better as E-books. I should have marketed SBTB as one of those genres. If I did, my book could be easily classified and sold, but I was too prideful to associate my book with what I considered to be ‘lesser’ categories —even though the book is essentially an urban fantasy novel. I’m not saying one should sacrifice artistic integrity to sell books, but I’ve learned it helps to know, ahead of time, what audience you’re looking for and what genre that audience reads —do a little market research.
As is, my book is a little too experimental to be enjoyed by the average fantasy reader, but also too fantastical to be considered literary. And too full of issues common to new writers to really hold anyone’s attention. I attempted to do too many things at once and should have simplified the story. Finding the right niche would have helped my book attract readers. I’m currently getting an MFA from Albertus Magnus College and one of the classes I recently took was called the Literary Marketplace. That class taught me to always be thinking of what audience you’re writing for, where your work will fit and be best marketed. This is not something I considered at all with SBTB.
Another thing I should have done once I knew I was self-publishing, or once I knew I was going to be an author, is start building a base. I don’t have a great number of followers on social media to begin with, but I could have tried to start building up a base earlier. Only after the book was published and wasn’t selling did I try to gain followers on Tumblr, Facebook and Instagram. I gave the most energy to Instagram. I wrote little poems and posted pictures of them —there were tons of people doing the same thing and gaining followers. I thought why not me? It didn’t work too well. I put in a ton of work, posting something every day and trying to use the most popular hashtags to get the most traffic. I gained a few followers, sold a few books, but ultimately it was a bust. My poetry isn’t short, sweet and romantic, like most of the successful ‘Insta-poets’. I was trying to build a following on the wrong platform. Not to mention my heart wasn’t in it. It felt more like a chore than something I enjoyed doing. I don’t have to tell you that writing shouldn’t feel like a chore. The best stuff comes when you’re enjoying what you’re doing (and not trying to force things).
I haven’t gotten better at social media or gained a substantial number of new followers, but I am trying Twitter, which is a new platform for me. And I am one of the beta-testers/users of the new social media platform ‘Post.’. I am hoping that getting in at the beginning will help me build a following. I also have a small following on Medium which may be useful in the future.
I’ve built this website and blog myself. I bought a domain name and used Wix to build the site. There was a bit of a learning curve, but I think it turned out okay. I’ve linked this site to all my socials and plan to continue posting on my blog and Medium (for increased exposure). Since SBTB, I have a few works that have been published by literary journals and I’ve included links to all of them.
One thing we learned in the Literary Marketplace class is to start building up a base as soon as possible. I still haven’t figured out exactly how to do that, but it seems one of the best ways to stay in contact with your audience is through email. Please sign up for my blog. I’m going to be detailing my writing journey and hopefully you’ll be able to read along and learn from my mistakes and failures. I promise I won’t flood your inbox with useless stuff.
It’s been said that email is a better promotion tool than social media. Personally, it’s what gets me to buy and read other author’s work and it is something I am much more familiar with. Not to mention enjoy doing —most people wouldn’t say writing emails is fun for them, but it is for me. Many articles about writing promotion highlight the importance of email lists. I’m sure getting subscribers and using the email list function will be a learning curve, but in today’s writing landscape it seems essential.
I’m not planning on self-publishing my next book —a book of short stories and a novella (I’ll give updates as they develop). I’d like to find a publisher for it. However, since I’ve already self-published Statues Beneath the Blossoms I’m planning on fixing it and making it the YA-fantasy-type-book it should have been originally. If I think it’s good quality, I’ll get someone to help me copy-edit and market it this time. I’ve learned that paying a professional can be worth it in the long run.
With SBTB, I should have at least tried to get an agent or tried to get in with a publishing company. Since I didn’t try, I don’t know if it could have been sold and marketed by a publisher. Probably not without edits, but you never know. Now it will forever be a self-published book, which has its upsides and downsides. Currently SBTB is not available for sale, but I plan to re-release it once I’m happy with its quality. I’m thankful I’m able to make edits to the book and republish when ready.

I Did Do Some Things Right...

I did create a professional looking product. The format, cover and back were well done. I spent a great deal of time doing this myself. It may be better to have a professional design your cover, which was one of the things I learned in the Literary Marketplace class. However, I got lucky and was able to design a nice cover. I used tools that were available from CreateSpace and followed a format. I know it looks good because my books sold much better in person than on the web.
I also had some contests on Instagram that helped to hype up the book. I gave out free books in drawings. I also reached out to other Kindle authors, read their books and exchanged reviews on Amazon. I currently have all positive reviews on Amazon, so when I re-do and re-release this book, I’ll already be a bit ahead. I am actually very excited to do a Statues Beneath the Blossoms Remix. I don’t even have to market it as a remix if I don’t want to; one of the great things about Amazon Kindle and CreateSpace is I can go in and edit the book whenever I need. I’m very thankful I chose this option rather than a self-publishing option where I ended up having crates of books that I couldn’t sell. That’s something I read about before I published, so I made sure there was a bit of flexibility with my self-publishing option. All in all, nothing really makes up for experience. Even though I made a ton of mistakes, I learned from them and will not make them again. This experience will prove invaluable with new projects and when I re-release Statues Beneath the Blossoms.

Re-Release

As I stated I’m revising SBTB. I believe the premise and theme has a lot of potential and there were some well written parts. I think it could be a popular fantasy/YA romance book. Now that I’m not too proud to write something that isn’t ‘literary’ I am thinking I could make some income off this novel. Some authors who self-publish genre fiction do make money off their books, so we’ll see what happens with that.
The marketplace for YA and Fantasy is promising. Many E-books and self-published books in this genre do well online. A look through Amazon reveals that many books in this category started as self-published E-books and were later picked up by a traditional publisher and reprinted. Young people are hungry for works that understand them and reflect them. I am hoping I can provide that. We shall see how the remaking of SBTB goes.

Final Take Aways

My biggest piece of advice is to not rush your work. We all get really excited and ‘high’ on writing sometimes, but like I said it is worth letting a work simmer for a short period, so you can come back to it with new eyes. After doing this, I’d hire a copy editor to take a look and help you fix any flaws. Only once it’s as good as you can get it would I start searching for agents, publishers and/or self-publishing platforms.
This advice to “take your time” also pertains to shorter forms like stories and poems; when you have a final product that’s gone through a few drafts and revisions you can start sending it out, but don’t make publishing the biggest goal. Yes, we all want our work published, but if you have a piece of writing that you believe is high quality don’t settle for a journal that isn’t of the same caliber. Respect your work.
I hope learning from my mistakes and experiences has helped you. Please sign up to receive notifications from my blog, so you can follow my writing journey. Thanks for reading.
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Thanks again. Much love.


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