The self-publishing community is made up of people at all different stages of their journey. Both Zack Argyle and Zamil Akhtar have three books out and have developed a sense for their publishing strategy over time. They offered an amazing, practiced perspective, but it is one that is years removed from the steps they took to publish their debut novels.
Joshua Scott Edwards released his debut epic fantasy novel, An Ocean of Others, a little over a month before giving this interview. He has graciously given us a peek behind his process, providing insights based on trial and error. Based on the early buzz around his first novel, he found success through the process, and we will be seeing his name pop up as he continues his Dance of the Sibling Suns trilogy.
Q: First-off, can you tell us about your projects. How many books have you published, what are they, and where can people find them?
I think of my projects as falling within two categories. The first contains books I’m publishing in the “normal” self-publishing way, utilizing the best advice I can find online and generally doing what everyone else is doing and recommends. I’ve published one book like this, An Ocean of Others, which is my debut epic fantasy and the first in a trilogy called Dance of the Sibling Suns. The eBook for this one is exclusively on Amazon (and Kindle Unlimited), and the paperback can be found on all major online book retailers and some indie bookstores, such as Silverstones Books.
The second category is my more experimental route, where I throw all of the best advice to the wind and just try things out on a whim. I’m currently publishing Grave of the Waiting, a sci-fi horror story, as a serial on my website at joshse.com/grave. Each month, I send a chapter out by email with some AI-generated art inspired by the text and put it up as a free download. However, as it turns out, the common advice about self-publishing is followed for a reason. I’m sure ignoring it is a suboptimal use of my time, but it’s a lot of fun to try out all the weird ideas I can think of. It’s also one of the benefits (or perhaps pitfalls, depending on your perspective) of self-publishing – if you’re willing to put resources into a zany idea, no one is going to stop you!
Q: There are many different types of editing, all of which can be very expensive, especially in genres known for their high word counts. What kind(s) of editing did you invest in? How did you find your editor? Have you had positive experiences?
You got that right. Many editors charge by the word, so the longer the book, the more you’re going to pay. For An Ocean of Others, at around 135,000 words, developmental edits would have cost many thousands of dollars and likely forced me to delay my release by several months for rewrites. Although it certainly would have made the story better, I decided to save my money for other big purchases like cover art and marketing. That said, I did invest in a line editor and proofreader, something I would recommend every author does. Be sure to get sample edits and pricing from lots of different editors so you can make sure they’re on the same wavelength as you and you can afford them.
For line editing, I hired Stacey Kucharik, who has been working at her self-owned editing company Polished Print for fifteen years. After we collaborated on the manuscript, she sent it over to a proofreader with whom she has a business relationship. Overall, it was a very positive experience. I met Stacey when I enrolled in an online self-publishing class she teaches at Rosemont College, and she’s been not only a fantastic editor but a mentor and a friend.
Q: Self-publishing only works if people know where to find your work. How did you build your online presence (social media, website)? Which platform(s) do you focus most of your attention on?
Before I published my first book, I conceptualized this as a sort of chicken-and-egg problem. In order for people to want your books, you need to have a strong online presence. In order to have a strong online presence, people need to want your books. I was still in the middle of writing my book, so I started by creating a website and filling it posts about worldbuilding and behind-the-scenes stuff for An Ocean of Others. Unsurprisingly, these got pretty much zero traction, but I figured it would be a fun little treasure trove for future fans of the book to dive into if they wanted to. The most important thing here was to simply have a website and to have a mailing list. I can’t recommend starting a mailing list enough. If your online presence is tied to a particular social media platform, you’re stuck with the decisions of the company running it and their ever-changing, ever-mysterious algorithm. My goal has always been to find my book’s audience and encourage them to join me in my own little corner of the web.
That chicken-and-egg problem, though? Turns out that was the wrong way to think about it. It wasn’t until I did my book’s cover reveal that I started garnering any following at all. A better way to think about it is from a business perspective: you won’t have any customers unless you have a product they’re excited about. The product comes first, customers second. I did my cover reveal on Twitter just because that’s the platform I’m most comfortable with, then used that energy to funnel readers toward my mailing list with the promise of eARCs and a free copy of the story when it was released.
Q: It has been said over and over, deciding to self-publish is deciding to become a business owner. Did you start a legal business to manage taxes? Did you open up a P.O. box or setup any other resources to manage your business?
I did start a business called Archefire Publishing LLC, which was fairly easy and all online in Pennsylvania, apart from the optional step of opening a business checking bank account. I would recommend at least looking into starting an LLC to see how it affects your tax liability, but I don't have any particularly useful advice or recommendations in this area.
Q: The cover is always the first thing people see, and it can be a major cost for indie authors. How did you go about choosing an artist? Did you have to hire a separate cover designer? Did you commission any character art and how did you use it? Did you commission a map or any other additional pieces of art?
I knew I wanted to hire Felix Ortiz because I was familiar with his work for Rob J Hayes, Mark Timmony, Michael Fletcher, and many other indie authors with great cover art. I reached out to him by email, and luckily, he was available within my schedule and budget. Shawn King at STK Kreations does a lot of cover design with Felix, and he was my first choice for a designer as well. I’m lucky I was able to get a slice of both of their busy lives.
Now, I say “within budget” but the truth is that I knew I was going to pay a lot of money on cover art. Like you said, it’s the first thing readers see and it’s one of the best marketing tools we have as self-published authors. This is what I invested the most of my money in for An Ocean of Others (even more than editing!), but I’m sure many other authors would choose to shop around and save money. I think that’s wise. I’ve never claimed to be wise myself.
Q: How did you go about formatting and producing your ebooks, paperbacks, and, if you have them, hardcovers? What company or companies print/sell your books? Why did you choose to publish through the platforms you chose?
I formatted my eBook and paperback in Adobe Indesign, which has a steep learning curve like many Adobe products. It’s a powerful tool, but unfortunately not the most accessible. For paperbacks, I have literally no complaints about the software. It does everything I need it to. For eBooks, I would recommend almost any other formatting tool. Vellum is a good one, but it’s only available for Mac. You could also hire a formatter, but this is a good place to save money if you’re on a tight budget. There are lots of good resources online, and it’s a valuable skill to have.
For distribution, I chose to go exclusive to Amazon for the eBook so I could enroll in KDP Select. That allowed me to price the book at $0.99 and make it available through Kindle Unlimited, both of which are important because I’m a first-time author, and readers have no idea if they’re going to like my story. There’s risk on the customer’s part, so pricing my book as low as possible minimizes that risk for them. The paperback, I published both on Amazon and IngramSpark with both set to the same price; however, since IngramSpark works with a lot of distributors, you don’t have total control over how each one of them sets their price.
Q: One of the keys to get readers is to work with reviewers. Can you describe the process of making and sending out Advanced Reader Copies (ARCs)? How did you connect with reviewers? Would you suggest investing money in sending out physical ARCs or stick with eARCs?
I tried to make it as easy as possible for people to request an eARC. When I did the cover reveal, I included a Google Form asking for details like their preferred format, where they post reviews, the genres they like to read, and how to send it to them. As soon as I finished cleaning up all the bugs plaguing the eBook (curse you, InDesign), I just sent a link to the files in Google Drive to everyone who signed up.
That was all free, so I would definitely recommend doing that. I didn’t contact any promoters or anything, just managed it all through Twitter and my mailing list. Physical ARCs, on the other hand, can be really expensive, especially if you’re shipping them internationally as I did. I held a giveaway on Twitter to encourage people to retweet the book and increase its reach, which worked fabulously… until it came time to pay the bill. If you’ve got the budget, it’s fun to send out physical ARCs, and some people appreciate having one as a collector’s item. Still, it’s not the most effective use of money or time.
Q: Everything writers do to create their books can rack up quite an expensive budget. Did you invest in any paid blog tours, cover reveals, or paid reviews?
I haven’t paid for anything like that yet. For this first book, I wanted to see how well I could do with just organic spread and word of mouth. For the first month, that worked out pretty well, but now I’m trying to learn about Amazon and Facebook ads and see if they can be effective. So far, it’s been tough since the book only earns me $0.35 per sale, which is less than the suggested ad bid for most keywords.
Q: Pricing for indie books has quite a range. How much did you originally price your books for? Would you have taken a different strategy if you could do it over again? Do you ever have sales and/or free book giveaways?
Since An Ocean of Others is my first book, I listed it at $0.99 for the eBook, which I would recommend. It’s not going to turn you into an overnight success, but you’ll build an audience faster than if you price the book higher. The paperback pricing is $14.99, which I decided on after searching through lots of other indie authors to see what they’re listing their books for. I’m not sure what the sweet spot is for paperback pricing, but I don’t think it matters quite as much as eBook pricing – eBooks have been ~90% of all my sales. For sequels in the series, I’m currently planning on listing those at $2.99 instead of $0.99, but my thinking may change on this.
In KDP Select, you get two options for sales. One is called a Kindle Countdown Deal, where you can discount your book for a period of time up to two weeks. I can’t use this because your book needs to cost at least $2.99 to be eligible. Instead, I can use Free Book Promotions to list my book for free up to five days (and they don’t all have to be consecutive). I haven’t run any promos yet, but from what I understand, it’s good to “stack” promotions when you do this. For example, if you are going to list the book for free, you could promote it with a Featured Deal on BookBub and run Amazon and Facebook ads with copy that says it’s a free book all at the same time. That’s an expensive approach, but a good way to maximize reach and build your audience.
The only giveaways I’ve done so far have been on Twitter. I mostly use them as a way to increase reach and funnel readers to my mailing list, but again… very expensive, especially shipping overseas.
Q: The big question for a lot of authors considering self-publishing, especially those on a tighter budget, is how much will it cost? How much did you spend on your debut novel?
I’m fortunate enough to have a software engineering job that gives me a little more money to throw at my books, so I spent enough that I’d consider myself lucky if I recouped the costs of this book in ten years. I budgeted for $4,500, but ended up spending something like (off the top of my head – boy, I really should track this stuff more closely):
Cover art & design: $2,250
Ads: $370 (and still going)
Author copies: $320
And I’m sure there are some expenses I’m forgetting. Now, you can be much savvier than I was and hire an editor and cover artist(s) for cheaper while still ending up with a great product. You can also go the other direction if you want to go all out, hiring a developmental editor, paying for beta reads, etc. Ads in particular are a sinkhole into which you can throw as much money as you desire. The bad news is that all of these costs are generally up-front, but on the flip side, you can earn royalties for years once the book is out in the world.
Q: Do you feel like you made any mistakes along the way that you learned from? What pitfalls would you encourage authors to watch out for?
The biggest mistake I made was not commissioning my team early enough in the process. I waited until the book was nearly complete to hire Felix and Shawn for the artwork, which forced me to push my internal (luckily not yet public) release date back by several months. I would recommend getting your team involved as early as possible so you can avoid any scheduling conflicts.
Q: Where can readers find you and your books? Can you tell us about your latest and/or upcoming release?
The best place to find me is on my website, joshse.com, where you can sign up to the mailing list for a free copy of An Ocean of Others and monthly chapters of Grave of the Waiting. So far, a prologue and the first nine chapters of Grave are published, and I’m working on the last chapter as of answering these questions. I’m excited to finish that story, because next I’ll be jumping into the sequel to An Ocean of Others, which is slated for release in late 2023.
Thanks so much for inviting me to share my experience, James! I’m looking forward to hearing from the other authors you’ve reached out to as well, so we can all compare notes and learn from each other.
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