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Self-publishing learned the hard way. By Joe Harwell


Since 2009, I have self-published one novel a year with plans to continue this pace into the foreseeable future. Writing is easy for me and I always have several stories in the works. Editing is hard and requires the courage to allow other people to read and critique my work. Marketing any self-published novel is next to impossible when it comes to getting noticed among the thousands of books being published every month. But, I have learned a few things about writing, editing and marketing along the way and can confidently share it other writers who can learn from my experiences, both good and bad.

First, there’s no substitute for good writing. I wrote my first novel in a vacuum and I was lucky it turned out as well as it did. I also made the classic mistake of not having it properly edited and received reviews noting both the strength of the story and the need for editing. I joined a writers group in 2010 while writing my second novel and it was a humbling, life changing experience. Hearing the outstanding words being written across multiple genres by people who all seemed to be much better writers than me brought me to a very grounded place as a writer.

I credit my association with other writers for the improvements in my writing and opening my eyes to the value of third party editing. Sharing my work with people I trust during the writing process provides an invaluable perspective resource into my writing. In addition to catching spelling and grammar issues, other writers can look at the story and characters and provide a fresh view I may not have discovered. I don’t always take the advice of other writers who critique my work in progress, but I always consider their point of view.

Having an editing team is my most valuable resource. I’m lucky to have a retired English composition teacher in the family, plus several long time friends who are avid readers. Actually, calling them avid readers is downplaying their experience. They devour books, reading multiple books a month. Not all of them are crazy about my main genre, historical fiction, but they give me honest feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of the story, along with grammar, spelling, sentence structure and overall content evaluation. I actually prefer to have at least a few people read my novels in final edit who would not normally read the type of book I write. If they give it good marks, I know I’m on the right track. In 2013, I finally did a complete re-edit of my first novel. In addition to cutting seven thousand words from the manuscript, I changed the way it engaged readers with the story and the resulting reviews have been very good.

Marketing is a building process. I have a background in media, so writing and distributing press releases is something I’ve done for years. If you’re the type of writer who doesn’t want to put more effort into marketing than writing, your book may never sell to people outside immediate family and your circle of friends. After six years and six novel in the market, I’m still not making enough from books sales to cover all my monthly needs, but I’m making progress. I measure progress by books sales, but there are other factors too.

For example, the press release I sent out for my first novel in 2009 was picked up and run by more than twenty newspapers in Oklahoma. I’ve lived in this state most of my life and my novels are set in Oklahoma and Arkansas. The reality of having the press release in so many newspapers in the first few weeks after the novel was published didn’t result in a lot of sales. Most of the publications were small town newspapers, because cracking the two big daily papers in the state requires connections and more credibility that I had at the time.

Since 2009, I have made some connections, continued to stroke the press by sending releases when a new novel comes out, book signings and events I participate in with other writers. Just this year, my sixth novel is being featured in a monthly magazine and I’m getting calls to do radio and newspaper interviews. With that progress made, there’s still no substitute for what I call boots on the ground. I do this by finding affordable, high traffic events to sell books and other events where I have an opportunity to meet people interested in local products and people. For example, small town libraries are a great place to hold an event. They will let their patrons know you’re coming go all out to bring people in for an event.

A fairly well known romance writer I follow recently published a ‘how I spend my time’ chart of Facebook. Not surprisingly, over half her time is spent on marketing. Even writers who are traditionally published are required to do most of their own marketing. A traditionally published writer recently contacted me through LinkedIN to say his historical fiction novel sold more than five thousand copies in the first sixty days. I assured him that was a tremendous accomplishment, as most novels rarely sell that many copies over the lifetime of the author. He also shared that his publisher will not spend one cent to market his book until it reaches 100,000 sales. Considering he’s making less than two dollars per sale under the terms of his contract, I believe he would have been much better off to self-publish the book.

I firmly believe this is the best time in the history of the world to write and publish a book. Direct access to every phase of the publishing process has put more power in the hands of writers than any time since the invention of the Gutenberg printing press and the copy machine. Quality writing and good editing are more important than ever to stand out from all the books being published every day. Good marketing, which to me means working harder and smarter than everyone else is more important than ever too.

I spent decades in sales before becoming a writer. One of my bosses quoted something years ago regarding success and luck. He believed people create their own luck through hard work and out thinking everyone else. I practice this belief by doing things other writers aren’t willing to do to achieve success. I’m far from a best selling author and I know a lot of people who I consider to be better writers, but I’ve done something most of them haven’t since 2009. I keep writing, keep learning, keep publishing and continue to market my ever lovin’ arse off every day.

In addition to my own writing and publishing, I now edit for other writers and do writing and editing for a wide variety of businesses across the country. My background includes more than ten years in retail management with Wal-Mart, working as a coal analysis lab technician for National Steel, sales of a wide variety of telecom services and products, owner of a weekly newspaper, a monthly performance magazine and a TV station, sales of collection services and a metal buyer. My novels are about vampires, the media, politics, coal mining, crime, corruption, love, death, drugs, the past and the future.

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