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How to self-publish a book in 2016

UPDATE – these are notes I made when I started publishing fiction at the beginning of 2016. I didn’t meet all these goals. I’m a slower writer than expected, and I changed my publishing plans based on new data.

I’ve been working on fiction for the past several years, and during that time, I’ve also helped over 1000 self-publishing authors design, edit, publish and promote their books. I’m well-known in the indie author community and have spoken at many of the world’s largest book and publishing conferences.

After much research, debate, and soul-searching, I’ve decided to serialize my fiction. Traditionally published books tend to spend a lot on visibility and promotion, and hope to make it back with high sticker prices.

Self-publishing and indie authors have a much lower budget, but are able to reach more readers with pricing flexibility (the ability to price cheap or free); the other huge advantage indie authors have is the ability to divide our work up into pieces.

You’ve probably already heard that series are money-makers, and this is true: it’s much easier to make money with a series of books than a stand alone novel. The problem with series, is that writing a book takes a huge amount of effort, and authors don’t want to give away their book for free, when it could take another year to finish the second book in the series.

The solution is to serialize: to break each one book into several parts – the first can be free and the others can be priced higher. The risk of serialization, is that readers won’t feel satisfied, or won’t get into the story enough to want to read more. It’s also less common, so managing reader expectation is crucial.

Although there are arguments for and against, I believe it will work best for my publishing goals. Here is the strategy I will use in 2016.

Each month, publish part one of the first book in a potential series.

These will be between 25K and 50K (the first part of Shearwater is already almost 70K, and actually almost reaches the midpoint).

But most of the other books will stop after Act I, or the first major plot point. That’s enough to establish the setting and main characters, introduce the call to action, and hit the point of no return where everything changes.

The argument against serialization is usually that readers may feel ripped off, but remember I’m planning to make this free.

Each book will come with a warning in the beginning and end of the book, explaining that this is only the first part of the story, and offering readers the rest of the book for free if they sign up to my email list.

According to Mark Coker of Smashwords, free books get 40x as many downloads as 99cent books. That’s a huge difference. Hypothetically, I could have 10 books selling 100 copies a month at 99cents, and make around $700 bucks a month – OR I could make those 10 books free and get 4,000 downloads.

Of those 4,000 downloads, I could probably get 25% of them (1000) on my email list with a strong offer (the rest of the book for free). At this end of the first year, I’d have an email list of 10,000 readers who are interested in my fiction.

And those are very conservative numbers, with little marketing – actually I plan to market aggressively and grow my list to 100K in the first year.

Reaching readers is more important, and more valuable – especially in the first year – than trying to earn money from my fiction.

And remember, we’re just talking about part one of each book. I can still sell part 2 or 3 of the same book for 1.99/2.99 – or the “omnibus” for 3.99 when it’s all finished.

This also means, I can publish much faster, because instead of finishing one full book I can be building my list while I’m still polishing off the rest of it. And these are also series starters – so if the first book is popular, I can make money on the rest of the series.

Instead of 10 full novels, or 30 (each being a 3-book series), serialization lets me turn that same content into around 100 different items on Amazon.

And I can always adjust the prices: I will go permafree with the first ten books the first year, but after each book has over 1000 reviews (something that is SO much easier to do if you publish a permafree book, because the volume of downloads is much greater), I will set the first part of each book to 99cents and it should continue to sell well as a series starter.

Is it risky? Yes.

Things could go wrong if I don’t manage reader expectations well. And putting a book up for free doesn’t guarantee any downloads, and it also doesn’t guarantee anybody will like the book. But it still gives you a greater chance of success than launching at a higher price point and trying to sell the book with no platform.

Moreover, simply by organizing my publishing endeavor as a giant case study, and taking risks nobody else is willing to, I’m creating content (like this article) that will get shared – which is even more visibility.

My 2016 goals

As of 12/29/2015, this is what I hope to achieve in 2016:

  • Publish the first section of 10 different books, in potential series.
  • Get a million downloads
  • Get 100K on my email list
  • Start finishing the whole books, and doing an even bigger launch for them.

I’m also aggressively building genre-based platforms around Young Adult fiction, including:

  • Creating a community of YA authors (700+ now, plan to reach 10K next year).
  • Creating a community of YA book bloggers/reviewers (700+ now, plan to reach 1K next year)
  • Building an email list of YA readers (12K now, building towards 100K next year)

Those are people I plan to support and help, by sending them traffic and organizing joint websites where we can post content and get lots of traffic. Good for everyone, but also good for me because I’m in charge of the community. I plan to help them first, and earn enough goodwill and favor that they will be inclined to help out with my book launches when the time comes.