A blog about writing and self publishing

My 30-Year Road Trip to Indie Publishing

By François Houle

Don’t let the title scare you. I had a lot to learn about writing and the English language (it’s my second language).

But that didn’t stop me in January of 1985, at the naïve age of 22, when I sat in front of my Apple IIe computer and started writing my first novel. It took me two years and it wasn’t very good, but it showed me that I could do this. However, it wasn’t until 2005 when my father passed away that I finally discovered the genre that I really enjoyed reading and writing: contemporary (aka literary, aka general) fiction. I prefer the terms contemporary or general because my writing isn’t all about the prose (as some think of literary fiction); it’s about ordinary people pushing through what life throws at them. Or in other words, I’m a marriage of Nicholas Sparks and Jodi Picoult’s styles.

Over the years, I wrote numerous novels and short stories, learning the craft and improving my writing. But I still had no idea if my books would ever get published the traditional way.

And then something happened around 2010: ereader popularity started to grow, and grow fast.

My wife and I were early adopters of Kobo eReaders, and I started to see indie publishing as a very real possibility. When KWL came into my life in 2012, I realized that an opportunity had presented itself and I picked up one of the three novels I’d written after my father died and spent nearly two years rewriting and editing it before I sent it out to be professionally edited.

Now is a good time to list the things needed to publish a book:

  1. Manuscript professionally edited (you will need to save for this but it is a must)
  2. A great book cover that includes:
    • An amazing blurb (How to Write Sizzling Synopsis by Bryan Cohen will show you what makes a great blurb)
    • A bio
    • A professional looking photo
  3. An epub version of your manuscript to upload to Kobo and other retailers that accept epubs (KWL has an automatic converter that will convert your PDF or .doc file to epub):
    • Mobi version for Amazon (they also have a converter that will convert your PDF or .doc to Mobi)
    • PDF if you want to upload to CreateSpace and offer print format

 

And here is a list of other things you’ll need for your author career:

  1. Accounts with all the retailers you want to upload directly to:
    1. I upload directly to Kobo, Amazon, and CreateSpace
    2. There are two aggregators that will distribute your ebooks to iBooks, Barnes and Noble, and numerous other places
      • Smashwords (which I use)
      • Draft2digital
    3. Author website
    4. Facebook page (separate from your personal profile)
    5. Educate yourself (I have lots of links on my website because it was a convenient way for me to remember sites I’d found useful—feel free to use them)
    6. Marketing (this, for me, is the most challenging)

 

So, what does it mean to be an indie author in 2018?

It means wearing many hats. Author hat. Publisher hat. Book Designer hat. Cover Designer hat. Website Designer hat. Marketer hat.

That’s why educating yourself is so important. You don’t have to do everything yourself, but to be honest, when first starting, we don’t have any money to waste and farming out all those things can add up quickly. The one thing I don’t skimp on is an editor. I do all the editing that I can to make the manuscript the best it can be, but then it goes off to my editor. I’ve worked with two editors and both have been good, but my latest one is better at recognizing structural issues with my plot (and sub-plots) and offering possible ways of solving them. I don’t have to do it his way, but it’s nice to get someone else’s point of view. Count on at least two rounds of editing. Some use different editors for structural editing, copyediting, and proofreading. Budget will dictate what you can afford.

When I published my first novel It Happened to Us in 2015, I had my cover professionally designed. Having little money for this, I eventually found someone that had reasonable rates but communication with her was sporadic and left me very frustrated. In the end, she gave me the cover I asked for but looking back, it wasn’t the cover that I needed. She didn’t understand my genre and I was still trying to figure it all out so what I ended up with was a cover that screamed non-fiction.

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It Happened to Us – original cover

So I searched the web and discovered book cover designer Derek Murphy. And that’s who made me realize that my cover was all wrong. You don’t want your cover to be too original, too off the norm for your genre. Why? Because your readers are looking for covers just like the books they love to read and if yours isn’t indicative of the genre, they will not give it a second glance. And don’t try to create a cover that tells the whole story either. It’s more important that when a reader sees it, they know exactly the type of book it is.

Armed with this new knowledge, I started looking at the covers of some of my favourite authors and soon understood what cover I needed.

But I couldn’t afford to hire someone else.

Luckily, at the time, Derek Murphy had all sorts of free blogs and templates on his website (which he still offers for free if you sign up to his mailing list). It’s absolutely worth it. If nothing else, it will educate you and will help you work with a cover designer if you decide to hire one. As for me, I studied everything he had, then using Word (yes, MS Word is actually a good tool for creating covers), I created the covers for all four of my books using images that I’d found and thought were perfect for my genre. Finding the perfect image is quite difficult and can take hours and hours (I use sites like 123RF and Shutterstock). And sometimes you think you have the perfect image but when you see it as a book cover, it just doesn’t work. That’s what happened with the original cover of my first novel when I had it done professionally.

Being able to create my own covers allows me to play around freely until I get it right. It did take a huge investment in time (most of 2017 was spent learning how to do covers in Word and then I discovered GIMP and since it’s a better tool, I took the time to learn how to use it). Maybe someday I’ll try a high-end professional cover designer, but for now I’ll keep doing them. I’ve had so many compliments on how good they look and that’s before I tell people I created them.

The next step is to format your manuscript. I highly recommend reading Smashwords Style Guide by Mark Coker because the key to getting your Word document to convert properly to epub is using the power of styles in Word. You also need to choose a page size. For my print format I really like 5.25” by 8” so I use the same format size for my epub. Even if you’re an expert Word user, check out the BookDesigner’s templates and blogs to learn everything that should be included in your finished book.

I use Calibre to create my epubs but there are other tools. As I said earlier, you can hire people to do these things, but it’s in my nature to learn new skills and do them myself (I attribute that to almost thirty years working in IT!). The more I know and can do for myself, the more empowering and in control of my author career I become. The tradeoff is less time writing.

So now I have my book cover and my epub and I upload it to Kobo using their easy-to-follow process in KWL, and voilà, sales just start to flow!

Well, not exactly.

As a new author, no one knows you or your books, and unless you managed to build a following of thousands before you published (which is rare) sales will be scarce. I’m sure you’ve heard about the importance of building a mailing list, and there are lots of opinions on how to do this, but for me it’s been a struggle. Mine are not the type of books that typically sell well in digital formats—I don’t write genre fiction and I don’t write series. However, I know there’s a fanbase out there for what I write, and marketing is the means to growing that fanbase.

I’ve used Facebook ads which have added about 150 readers to my list, AMS ads (still new at this), Bookbub ads (with little success). I’ve tried Freebooksy which helped me get over 800 downloads of Broken Hearts on another retailer and about 50 on Kobo, and I’ve tried Bargain Booksy which wasn’t very successful (I didn’t get a single sale). I’ve also joined a couple of Bookfunnel promotions with other authors which added a few hundred readers to my mailing list. Kobo has a really cool feature for promoting your books. It’s in Beta mode but you can send a request to the KWL team and they’ll probably make it available. Once they do, you’ll see in your dashboard a new tab labelled Promotions and you can review all the available promotions and if you find one that fits, you simply submit a request. If you get rejected, just try again at a later time.

Back in early April of 2018, I submitted my free novella Broken Hearts for a promo and it has since been downloaded over 1000 times. I know from these downloads that I’ve had sales of my other books and sign ups to my mailing list.

Marketing is an ongoing process of learning and trying things out. Other indie authors have used the same paths I’ve taken and they say they’ve added thousands to their mailing list.

Certainly, having thousands, or tens of thousands of fans on your mailing list, is the ultimate goal because then you have direct access to your fanbase. But it’s not that simple. Every new person that joins your list doesn’t know you. You can’t just sell to them. You need to engage and build a relationship with them first before even thinking of asking them to buy from you. Again, there are plenty of blogs on this, and a really good place to start is Kindlepreneur (lots of free and useful content especially if you are just starting).

As for my mailing list, it’s a work in progress. I do plenty of things wrong. But I keep learning and moving forward because I love writing, and I want readers to discover my stories. Indie publishing has created opportunities and possibilities that in 1985, I couldn’t have ever fathomed. I’m no longer a 22 year old hoping to get published someday, and as I get closer to retirement, I look at indie publishing as an opportunity to establish myself as an author and share my stories with an ever-growing fanbase.

We don’t need to sell millions of books to be successful. As an indie, you can decide what success means to you. Sometimes it’s as simple as just getting a five-star review from someone you’ve never met who has truly enjoyed your book or seeing that your book has been downloaded over 4000 times and in more than 50 countries.

It’s a great time to be an author.


SONY DSCFrancois Houle is a Canadian author who writes contemporary fiction about ordinary people living through difficult life-changing challenges. A bookworm since the age of 8, he created a comic book when he was 12 and at 22 wrote his first novel. He has owned Baskin-Robbins franchises, founded and operated a part-time resume writing business so his wife could stay home with their kids, and has spent nearly 30 years in IT. In his limited spare time, he loves to improve the landscaping around his home or build something in his woodshop. He lives in Ottawa, ON with his wife and family. You can find him on Facebook and via his website at francoisghoule.com.

 

8 Responses to “My 30-Year Road Trip to Indie Publishing”

  1. Linda Lee/@LadyQuixote

    Thank you for this awesome goldmine of information! I am bookmarking this page for when I’m finally ready to publish. And then I will head over to Amazon to take a look through your books. 😀

    Reply
  2. Elaine Housby

    How on earth did you get away with designing covers in Word? Smashwords will only accept jpg or png files and I’ve had a cover done in MS Paint rejected by Smashwords as well even though it’s a png file. I am finding the covers a massive stumbling block to self publishing as I couldn’t possibly afford to pay for them to be done professionally yet. I think the biggest reason many authors just stick with Amazon is that it’ll make a cover for you.

    Reply
    • Francois Houle

      Word is actually very powerful. I learned all about it from Derek Murphy. I highly recommend you download his package and read it and practice. I spent months learning and tweaking my covers. Once done, I then used the Snipping tool (I use Windows 10 but I believe it’s available in Windows 7) to highlight the edges of the cover and save to jpg. There are tools on the internet that will convert from pdf to jpg (save your Word doc to pdf first), but I found that they didn’t convert my colours properly while the snipping tool did. And then after all of that, I discovered GIMP (like photoshop but free) and relearned everything but it’s worth it as it’s better in many ways but a bit more complicated. I’d be happy to answer any other questions you have and thank you for reading the post. Good luck.

      Reply
  3. robynbranickbooks

    Awesome article. I love the great tips. Kindlepreneuer is a great source of information. I am on his mailing list. I just listened to a podcast with Bryan Cohen recently and I was blown away by it. Also, thank you for the tip on how to find promos in Kobo.

    Reply
    • Francois Houle

      Thanks Richard. I appreciate you investing your time in reading it. It’s been a fun journey so far with plenty of road ahead.

      Reply

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