Lessons from My Accidental Self-Publishing Journey

Most people enter the realm of self-publishing armed with a specific reason for their journey: they want the freedom to design their book just the way they’ve imagined it, or they don’t want to jump through the hurdles of traditional publishing, or maybe they’ve already faced problems in the traditional route and have switched gears. I didn’t have any of these reasons in mind when I self-published, maybe because I self-published by accident.

I’ll explain.

Back in summer of 2015 (buckle in for a quick jaunt in my time machine), I had just finished the first manuscript that I thought was worthy of seeing the light of day in quite a while. Previously, as a teenager, I had made a weak attempt at querying, like, 2 agents on a horror novel. I didn’t have a synopsis and I think the book’s premise was something terrible like “Chuckie” meets “Blair Witch Project” meets “My Little Pony”. (Nightmarish in multiple ways, I’m sure.)

Ignoring my past mistake, I celebrated my new completed manuscript and hopeful journey into publishing– for real, this time.

The book was a cozy mystery, a slight detour from my horror phase. If you’re unfamiliar with the “cozy”, the genre features small towns, fairly low-stakes crime, and an amateur detective. I imagine they are generally read by older women with coiffed hair drinking tea in armchairs. (But if you’re a messy-haired young man who prefers walking with coffee, please don’t let this deter you.)

My detective, Jordy, is led back to her hometown and employment as a barista after a series of misfortunes. The building next door to the coffee shop blows up on her first day, throwing her into a criminal investigation that reunites her with her old pal Samantha (now lead investigator at the small-town PD) and leads to a romance with sexy bassist, Keith, because of course there must be a love interest and if he plays an instrument, well… (You can check out Decaf & Drones here on my lonely Amazon page.)

After some careful exploration into the Twitterverse, I decided to pitch Decaf & Drones during #PitMad in June of 2015. A small publisher liked my tweet and everything moved quickly from there: I received a contract, went through rounds of edits, and met with a cover designer. I was published! Wahoo!

Not so fast.

Just weeks before the big book release, the company folded. It was one of many small fish that was just unable to survive the wake of the giant publishers devouring everyone else. And the timing, for me at least, was…well, not ideal.

Overnight, I went from discussing royalties to receiving a link to CreateSpace on Amazon.

It was now autumn 2015. I was elbow-deep in work at my virtual job and midway through my first semester at grad school, where I would also be working as a Teaching Assistant in lieu of paying for schooling. My son had just celebrated his first birthday. My husband was finishing his apprenticeship, working seven hours away, so he wasn’t home much at all. I was drinking too much coffee because that is apparently how I handle stress.

To top things off, we lived in a rough townhouse miles from the university in a very rural neighborhood with some serious “Deliverance” vibes. The building had been recently and hurriedly converted from long-abandoned air force base housing. No less than three of our neighbors had said something along the lines of our family not belonging there. At night, I would look out our back window and see the shadows of the still-abandoned buildings stretching toward us ominously. I’d lock the flimsy front door and pile cardboard boxes precariously in front of it. I was into high tech intruder prevention.

That’s the setting when I found myself tossed into self-publishing. I was so not ready to take on another challenge.

We were able to scrape together to get the heck out of that neighborhood and closer to the university. That eased one huge stressor in my life, though, and I dedicated whatever time I had left over after teaching, grad school, and raising my son to self-publishing my book.

I learned two huge lessons from this ridiculous experience.

First, I learned to expect the unexpected in the ironically elusive world of publishing. If I had simply done more research, I might have made a different choice: maybe I would have waited for an agent and a more established publisher rather than fangirling it to the first one who showed me some love. Maybe I would have simply learned more about self-publishing and prepared myself better to publish the book myself. I should have been prepared for the many unknowns.

Second, I learned how much work self-publishing takes. I was told that I could take my materials and ease onto the Amazon platform, but, although my book was well-edited at this point, and I had bought the professional cover design, I was ill-prepared for the task.

I was impatient and didn’t have the time to completely switch gears in the midst of grad school, a couple teaching jobs, and raising a busy toddler. If I were a patient person, I would have simply waited until I had less on my plate, but I was fixated on the idea that my book was on its way out already, and it had to get out– now! Bad choice. Self-publishing takes time to do well. I know this now.

Time is needed to build a marketing platform. In 2015, thinking website = published author, I actually set up this blog– with no posts, no communication, no anything really, mind you– hah– and then walked away for 6 years! The audacity of shameful 2015 Sarah. I found myself moving onto other things before I really learned about the value of marketing, leaving my very polished yet unloved cozy mystery in the dust.

Obviously, the marketing work all falls on the author with self-publishing. I lucked into an opportunity to sell my books at one event at my hometown and another opportunity to sell with a couple local bookstores. Other than that, I was simply selling to my friends and my family and their friends and family through word of mouth. Surprisingly, I still made a bit of money off of self-publishing despite my naïve trip into that world, but if I could do it all again, I would do so much more. Establishing a broader platform through social media and conferences, being more involved in the writing community locally and virtually and being fully committed to my story for a while after I published it would have all helped immensely.

For those of you interested in self-publishing, what is drawing you towards that route? If you’ve already traveled in that direction, what did you learn?

7 thoughts on “Lessons from My Accidental Self-Publishing Journey

  1. I enjoyed reading about your experience! And the humor too caught me from the first paragraphs! I think that no matter how self-publishing turns out for everyone, one benefit is that it always teaches writers about publication!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! It was an amazing learning experience, with its ups and downs, like all parts of life. And I’ve been working at bringing my humor to the page, so I’m glad you enjoyed that. 🙂 I’m pretty ridiculous in person, but it doesn’t always translate to my writing.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Well, I guess it’s going to be that route for me in the future. Having worked at an educational publisher that also carries both regular reads, the acquisitions people often have their own biases. I’m also rather introverted, so I find it hard to deal with literary agents — not to mention the politics inside the world of publishing.

    I’ve also come to hate the idea of promoting my work to people who will reject it anyway. It’s much easier for me to get my work discovered by someone who actually appreciates it on a deeper level, rather than gaining a superficial audience through connections that would eventually reject my work at the drop of a hat. Call me an idealist, but I prefer meritocracy over nepotism all day.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Self-publishing was tough, but I agree with a lot of what you’re saying about traditional publishers. I’m still naively hopeful that someone will love one of my manuscripts as much as I do and want to work with me to get it through the gates to the big publishing companies. I want to reach a larger audience than I can with self-publishing, though I strive to hopefully grow whatever audience I may have in the meantime. Always have a plan B, I suppose. I have this crazy idea that I can actually make a difference with my writing if it gets out to more people; I think I must be an idealist myself in that way. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow, that was a terrible experience for sure. I can’t imagine being so pumped up for my publication then watching my dreams just float away like the ocean claiming a piece of plastic. Thanks for sharing this, and I don’t know if I’ve said it before (I’ll probably repeat this again in the future), but I love your voice!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Aw, thank you for the compliment. I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve, which is a hindrance in real life, but I think an advantage in writing, hopefully. I really enjoy your voice as well; your humor hooks your readers from the start!


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