Marketing is Hard and Other Indie Publishing Problems

So, this year is not going how I expected it to.

Maybe because I’m riddled with indecision. Maybe because society is crumbling around us. Who really knows what’s going on, but I’ve had some time to rethink what I’m doing with my year.

It was about a year ago that I revealed my plans for self-publishing my first novel, a STILL untitled sci-fi mystery about an eclectic amateur sleuth who loves history, hates technology and is forced to work with an android partner. If you can believe it, I’m still working on that story, but after battling with the aforementioned indecision I keep changing my mind on the direction I want to take it. Or rather, the story I write is pulling away from what I originally envisioned, and so the problem becomes what needs to change – my original vision or the story I’ve actually written?

Any feeble sort of writing routine I had since last year has completely broken down, and while I’m trying to fix that, it’s still taking a bit of trial and error (and a truckload of discipline) to find.

Beyond the writing issues, continued research from other, far more experienced indie authors suggests that I need to work on my platform and build my email list – problems I knew I’d have to tackle but have struggled to tackle in the most effective way.

It’s been an interesting year since I made that announcement, so I thought today I’d break it down for you and reveal what I’ve learned, the struggles I’m facing, and what I’ll be working on going forward.

Choosing Your Genre

I have always seen myself as a writer of both fantasy and sci-fi, because I love writing both, and I know I will write for both genres. Despite advice that I stick to one genre per pen name, I thought I could pull it off if I did a good job of balancing the two. With that in mind, I did have to consider what to publish first when I made that announcement last year, and when I settled on the sci-fi mystery it had many things going for it:

  • It was shorter, and thus easier to work on and would be cheaper to edit
  • I was extremely passionate about the project, the writing was easy, and coming up with new material was similarly effortless
  • It was, for the most part, an under-represented subgenre from a self-publishing perspective

Before making the switch to sci-fi, I had been working on two fantasy books. One was young adult and was intended for the traditional route (YA is harder to self-publish in general), and the other was a behemoth epic fantasy that was taking me forever to write and would cost a fortune to be properly edited. And that part was important to me. I wanted to do this right from the start, and that meant spending the money to make sure I was creating a professional product.

And spending thousands of dollars on my first novel sounded like a good way to waste a lot of money. So I wanted something shorter and more concise. It would be easier to get right and less expensive to edit, and that was what I wanted with my debut.

So this sci-fi landed in my lap that I was absolutely in love with and was super excited to share with the world. It also seemed (at the time) to be the right choice from a publishing perspective. So that was the plan I set for myself. I wrote that post stating my intentions and I got to work.

But at the start of this year, I took another look at my collection of potential writing projects and it was heavily fantasy-based. Of course, there was a bit of space opera/space fantasy and some other ambiguous space-related genre-hopping tomfoolery, but I think I am primarily going to be a fantasy writer.

So, was I still going to begin my self-publishing journey with what might be the only ‘pure’ sci-fi series I had in the works? Of course, I might have other ideas in the future, but the next several things I wrote would certainly be fantasy. Suddenly juggling both genres the way I’d intended was not as feasible as I thought it was.

The Trouble with List-Building

The huge marketing buzz around newsletters and email lists is not unfounded – they are crucial to anyone hoping to do business online because it puts you in direct communication with your audience. That’s why it was one of my top three goals for the year. If I wanted to find any success as a self-published author, I had to get my ducks in order and get my email list going.

But it turns out it’s a lot more complicated than I first expected it to be.

Choosing a Lead Magnet

This is probably the hardest part – figuring out what to give away in exchange for someone’s email address. Asking people randomly to subscribe to an email list is never going to work, and why should it? You have to give them a reason to want to hand over that precious email.

I can see how much easier this step can be for bloggers and the like – checklists and worksheets and other printables are much easier to whip up. They’re certainly an option where this blog is concerned, but what I want to find are people who enjoy my writing and the sorts of stories that I tell. It’s the best way to ensure that I’m building the right audience. So the only option I had was to write a story with the intention of giving it away for free.

I can’t give away a full novel, of course, so a short story was looking like the best option. I began writing a short story set in my sci-fi mystery world, but then I began to have doubts about what I would be publishing first and whetting appetites for a story I might not be publishing was sounding like less of a good idea.

I needed this lead magnet to be a good sample of the sort of stories I like to write and give as clear a picture of the sort of things people can expect from me. And a sci-fi mystery, as much as I enjoy it, was not what I needed to use.

How People Find your Lead Magnet

You can spend all the time in the world setting up a pretty landing page and working on an amazing lead magnet, but if you’re not getting it in front of your ideal audience and getting them to sign up, it’s not really doing the work it needs to.

And one thing I have struggled with is how exactly to do that.

Of course, there’s this blog. I can put newsletter sign-ups in the sidebar and leave a box at the bottom of every post, but is this blog capturing my ideal audience? I’m certain there will be some crossover between readers of this blog and people who would be interested in my fiction – I do spent too much time talking about the fantasy and sci-fi subgenres here after all. But I think it’s better to have a more focused location. So I’ve begun building a dedicated author website.

And then there are obviously newsletter exchanges (Story Origin) and you can offer up your lead magnet on social media and the like, but what else can you do to get your lead magnet in front of your ideal readers? Setting up your email list is important, but useless unless you do something with it.

The Unexpected Costs of Starting Up an Email List

Did you know that you need to include a physical address when you send out an email as part of an email campaign? I did not. And so your chosen email service will use the one you provided, which is more than likely your home address if you are just starting out like I am.

But I’m not really comfortable handing out my home address. The only solution then is to pay for a PO box. In Canada, to rent the smallest PO box for a year is going to cost you around $170 (about $120 USD). Editing and cover design and ad spend are not cheap for an indie author, so I focused on using the most affordable services I could while I’m still starting out. And now, something that should have been inexpensive (or free) is becoming an exceptional cost. And if I can’t drive the traffic to my potential lead magnet and get those newsletter subs then what am I spending the money for?

If possible, I need to see some return on my list-building endeavors before I put down the money. This still means writing some freebies to give away, but focusing on marketing those, and making sure I include links to my newsletter list. Once I feel I’ve got a good marketing plan in place, I can start investing the money into it. It sounds a bit like putting the cart before the horse, but what if it takes me years to get a working strategy for sending readers to my landing page and building that email list? That could become a costly mistake.

Who is My Ideal Audience?

This has probably been the most important part of the whole process – trying to find those people who will enjoy what I write. And I can’t find that audience if I haven’t defined it yet. Where I might once have considered any fan of sci-fi or fantasy, it is now apparent that my audience must include avid fantasy readers – that will probably take up the bulk of what I put out.

I’ll need to consider who my ideal reader is and where they spend their time, and then I need to go to those places to promote what I do. Something that can’t be done until I know who I’m trying to draw interest from.

Creating a Brand & Platform

Once I’ve figured out my audience I need to build a platform to capture them – and that means approaching everywhere you see me online as you would if you were a part of that ideal audience. Website, social media, landing pages, bios, images, colours, design.

Branding.

I want a look that is authentic but also intrigues any potential readers. It needs to convey who I am and what I do. I need to be creating content and promoting myself on these various platforms to draw people to my author website and my email list.

But first I need to figure out what it is I do, and the audience that I’m trying to target. This blog has always been a lot of fun, but is it doing enough? Are there ways I can improve it so it does more work for me? This is something I need to look into.

To think I have all this on my plate already, and I haven’t even reached the true marketing grind yet – after I’ve published a book. I can only imagine how much harder that phase will be. But having a professional platform, a solid landing page and lead magnet to build my email list and a good understanding of my ideal audience will help me once I get there.

So, what am I working on?

I’ve waxed on about the problems I’ve struggled with since deciding to self-publish, but that begs the question – what am I doing to address them? Here is what I’ll be working on in the next couple of months.

An Author Website

As much as I love writing for and working on Alyssa Lost in Space, it’s become pretty clear that I need a dedicated author webpage as a nexus for readers to find out what I’m about, what I’m working on, what I’ve already written, and where they can find me. And it needs to appeal to readers of my target audience.

I’ve had alyssaflynn.com waiting in the wings for years now, just in case, and I’ve already begun to update it. I also need to study other authors’ websites, both traditional and indie, in my chosen genre(s), to see what works for them and what a fantasy reader might expect when they drop by.

A Lead Magnet

As I mentioned before, I am working on a short story to work as a lead magnet.

I will be utilizing that short story set in the sci-fi world I mentioned before because I think that series really captures the sort of characters I like to write and the stories I am going to tell. However, it won’t be my lead magnet.

I’m still working on a new short story, but I do know it will be fantasy. Once that’s finished and polished I’ll be setting up a landing page and beginning the process of building that email list!

Free Fiction

This might be controversial to more savvy indie authors, but I do plan on regularly releasing fiction on Alyssa Lost in Space and on my upcoming author website. I’ve yet to decide if it will be a serialized novel or a series of short stories, but it’s something I’m really passionate about. It’s a risk-free way of marketing my writing and my brand without spending a bunch of money and potentially getting nothing out of it. It’ll also force me to write a lot more than I am, and more importantly to get it out there and share it with people! That’s why I want to self-publish in the first place. I have a lot of stories to tell and I want to be able to share them.

My First Self-Published Novel

This is the big one, especially since, regretfully, I don’t plan on publishing that sci-fi mystery for my self-publishing debut. Maybe as my second or third, but I think what is important now is that I establish my brand and find a routine that works for me. And fantasy is just the safer genre.

That means that the first novel I publish (hopefully by the end of this year), will be an adult fantasy novel.

But which one? That’s the million dollar question for me right now.

I know it needs be the first in a series or something with series potential. I was thinking of turning my NaNo 2019 candy project into a novel, but it wasn’t written to market or anything and I’m not sure if it’s something people would be interested in reading. It was meant to be short (50k), and full of over-the-top fantasy goodness. And I need to decide if that aligns with the brand I’m trying to build.

I have a few other ideas that have been lurking in my mind since the end of last year, though none are quite so far along as the aforementioned candy project. I have a lot of thinking to do, and then a lot of writing.

If there is anything good to come out of this pandemic, it’s that it’s given me plenty of time to do so.

Chat With Me!

What have you been up to while stuck at home? Are you a writer as well? Maybe a future indie? A blogger? How have you marketed yourself? How’s your 2020 turning out? Let’s chat in the comments!

Author: Alyssa Flynn

Alyssa is a writer, certified geek and creative lifestyle blogger here to help fellow creatives live their most productive and fulfilling life, go on crazy creative adventures and obsess over genre and narrative.

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