Exactly a year ago today, I clicked the “Publish” button on my Amazon KDP dashboard, sending Zero Hour: A Short Story off into the digital wilds, with a packed lunch and a nice, warm coat on. I expected that to be pretty much it. The figures bandied about by the many self-publishing gurus who frequent message boards and other social media platforms, waffling about how much they know about publishing, said something like “An average debut self-published book will sell two hundred copies in its lifetime,” so I reckoned if I hit that figure at some stage, I’d know I had done something right.
I hit that in the first week.
Now, I don’t want this to turn into a bragfest. I have little time for those writers who spend their entire day on writer message boards, telling everyone how many thousand books they’ve sold, but I’ve sold more than I could ever have imagined. All five parts so far have hit the #1 spot in its genre chart on Amazon at some point, and part one has more or less remained in the top five of that chart for the last year. It’s right up there on the chart beside bestselling writers like John Scalzi, Terry Brooks, Hugh Howey, J.R. Rain and more. How cool is that?
So then the reviews started to come in, and I knew that maybe I had done something else right. I was waiting for the inevitable bad one (and still do), but it didn’t come, indeed the only one star review I’ve gotten was a troll review from a fellow Irish author who didn’t like my views on publishing. People were talking about it, discussing it in forums, some readers, some authors wondering how the hell I got Hugh Howey to blurb my book. I had no idea what to expect when I published, I had no back catalogue, no budget (I designed the cover myself), certainly no money for marketing of any kind, and no mailing list to fall back on. On paper, it shouldn’t have worked, but for some reason, it did.
Then something else happened. I started getting contacted by people out of the blue asking “Well, what happens next?” I had no clue of course. While some may say it mirrors the success of Hugh Howey’s brilliant Wool (albeit on a much smaller scale-I won’t be buying a boat just yet!), I certainly had no plans to expand on the story. My initial plan was to write and release a few separate short stories, dipping my toe in the literary waters, and eventually releasing them in a collection, before moving on to my first novel. Like many short stories, Zero Hour is open-ended, but somehow what I’d written had captured people’s imagination enough that they cared about what happened next to these characters, so I began to think about what could happen next. A few weeks later, part 2 was finished, and I felt even more nervous than the first day I published. What if they hated it? What if it was all just a fluke, some error in Amazon’s algorithms? Thankfully, readers liked it just as much as the first.
As I write this, I’m putting the finishing touches to part 6. This will be the final part, and it’s been the hardest to write. I feel like I owe these characters a good send-off, and I don’t want to mess it up. Once that’s done, the omnibus edition comes next. Not everyone likes reading a serial, I get that, and I hope it translates well into a novel.
It’s been a largely positive experience for me so far, and I acknowledge that I’ve been very lucky, but I’m hoping at this stage that I’ve got what it takes to do this and make a success of it. I’d genuinely love to do this full-time. I have no aspirations of being either rich or famous, I love my little house in the country, and my shitty-yet-reliable thirteen year-old little car. If I can put food on the table and put my kids through school, maybe go on a nice holiday once in a while, I’ll be happy. It’s taken me until middle age to find out what I really wanted to do, and this is it. I’ve finally figured out what I want to be when I grow up, and it looks like I’ve grown up. I may not be making a living from writing yet, but it’s paying some bills. I’m getting paid for creating something from nothing. That blows my mind.
I’ve made some great friends, too many to name, but check my social media feeds and my blog reviews and give them a read if you can. I’ve lost a few too. The ones I’ve made are helpful, supportive and kind people. The ones I lost were those who quickly turned out to be self-obsessed, dishonest, manipulative individuals, masquerading as helpful, supportive and kind people, but thankfully there are far more good than bad. Just watch out for those folk.
So, what have I learned from this experience? I’ve made a little list.
- Once you publish on Amazon, the KDP dashboard will be the most visited web page on your phone, tablet and computer.
- Be careful writing serials. Continuity!
- Find a good editor, and keep them. Ask around, get opinions, read books they’ve edited. Don’t pick someone because they’re the cheapest/sexiest.
- Don’t constantly yearn for a publishing deal. It’s not all it’s cracked up to be. I’ve turned one down already. If a decent one comes along at some stage, who knows, but the one I was offered was most definitely not a good one.
- Self-publishing isn’t for everyone. It’s a tough game, and I completely understand why some people may find it daunting.
- It’s totally worth it though.
- One of the questions I get asked most in interviews is “What advice do you have for aspiring writers?” My answer? Don’t be an aspiring writer, be a writer. Just get off your butt and do it. Every tool and resource you need is right there waiting online. You’ll either be very good, or very bad-either one will become evident very quickly.
- Stephen King’s On Writing is a holy text. The audiobook even holier.
- On Amazon, everyone judges a book by its cover. Get a good one.
- Word counts mean nothing. Tell the story you need to tell, then you can count the words all you want. Some people preach the “write everything and anything down, and edit later” mantra. I don’t. Quality over quantity, slow and steady. Just my two cents.
- Don’t sit on short stories. They’re not eggs and you’re not a chicken. If you’ve submitted a short somewhere and it’s been rejected, screw ’em – get it edited, get a nice, simple cover, and put it out. It’s not going to do you any good sitting in a folder on your laptop. Better yet, if you have a few, put them out in a collection.
- Write what you love to read. Unless what you read is Alien Space Bear Dinosaur Erotica, in which case you need more help than I can ever give you.
- If someone offers to publish your book and then asks for money, then all they really want is your money.
- Don’t open separate Facebook pages for your books. Your author page is enough.
- Be good to each other, help each other out. Pay it forward, return favours. It doesn’t require as much effort as you might think.
Finally, the best advice I can give comes from one of my favourite authors, Ray Bradbury. Funny thing is, as I write this, one of my books is beside his on an Amazon chart, which is pretty mindblowing. He says: “Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens.”
Worked for me so far.