Reality checks for today’s independent author

By   Hannah Bickerton 7 min read

Nick M Lloyd is a Science Fiction writer based in the UK. His latest book “Immortal” is available at Amazon,Waterstones, and Barnes & Noble.

Sitting down to write: Why do it at all?

No… this is not a section extolling the virtues of standing desks… this is about how you perceive your place in the writing world. Why are you here? What do you want?

Challenge yourself on why you want to write a book in the first place.

There are hundreds of very valid reasons (fun, money, sharing a vision, etc.). For each reason there is a different approach that will help you succeed. If your number one reason is to ‘get rich’ then be ready to write a commercial genre – romance and self-help books are big sellers.

I started writing as a way to relax at the end of the day, but that motivation evolved into using stories to ‘share wonder’ and ‘make sense of my place in the universe’ – to promote a little philosophical introspection and to entertain… but also I could sell them…

… you see how difficult it is to really synthesise down to a fundamental reason.

Reality Check 1: Be very honest with yourself as to your own motivation to write. If you can’t be honest (because you’re not sure) then be honest about that… it’s a start.

Writing the first draft: Any words will do.

Please don’t wait for the inspiration of the perfect sentence, the perfect paragraph, etc.

Write anything. Write rubbish. It doesn’t matter.

For most writers, words from the first draft do not survive, but they are important. They give momentum.

I acknowledge that other experiences may vary. I am a member of a few web forums where some members declare they write 2,000 words per day for fifty days and their book is just about finished.

That’s not my experience. For my latest novel (Immortal, which is 99,000 words long), it took me nine drafts and about 350,000 words to finish.

Reality Check 2: You can’t edit a blank page.

Cheerleading or criticism: You need both!

At certain stages of your writing project (assumed to be a novel but can be anything) you will need feedback. However, you cannot expect all feedback providers to magically understand what you need in terms of general encouragement or focused critique. In truth we need both at various stages of the process.

One of the most serious considerations for an independent author is that things need to be done cheaply – there is no large publisher with cohorts of editors ready to lend a hand. So, you need to be savvy.

Two useful pools of readers for early stage feedback are friends and family and writing forums.

Friends and family

You need to be careful. Almost every comment you get from friends and family will be overly complimentary. Also, you cannot ask busy friends to read new work for you every few weeks. That said, during the writing journey you do need cheerleaders who will smile and tell you how wonderful you are… it’s a momentum thing.

I have a pool of about twelve friends and I normally send a decent draft out to four of them at any one time. Then if two or three of them nicely comment that my snarky, cool, hipster heroine is coming across as a real pain in the arse, I will go back to the script.

Writing forums

Many writing forums offer free critique areas. You post 1,000 to 2,000 words and faceless strangers tear it to bits… not always the most fun thing but it is very necessary to balance out all the wonderful reinforcement that you’ve had from your friends and family.

Look for writing forums that cover your genre. Join in the daily chats on all the subjects of interest to yourself. Put on your hard hat and remind yourself that you’re a wonderful human being… and post your work. Remember: don’t be defensive, never try to change someone’s mind, don’t respond to criticism by attacking another’s work… just read the comments, decide which you agree with and take away the lessons learned.

Reality Check 3: Accept feedback with an open mind.
If more than one person makes the same point, then look more carefully at it. But… not all opinions have the same value. You have to balance the fact that it is your book and your artistic creation but you are hoping/expecting/needing strangers to buy it.

Independent publishing is not an excuse for poor quality: Money is tight, so use your budget effectively.

Although working mostly alone, you have to create a book of such outstanding quality that it will compete and win against JKR and GRRM. Do you have a chance?

Maybe… But to have a chance you must use your finances wisely. The shopping list of author support includes (but is not limited to): Developmental editing/review, line editing, copyediting, cover design, typesetting, eBook conversion, PR, blurb writing, marketing support… and on and on. There are companies that will even ghostwrite your novel for you.

There are almost as many ‘author services’ as authors…this fact has no evidence to back it up… and is probably wrong… but the spirit of the comment is valid.

Here’s a lead: I am a member of The Alliance of Independent Authors. 

They have loads of in-depth advice on writing, and critically, a database of author service providers with warnings (of ones that may not have your best interest at heart) and recommendations of services that ALLi members have used time and again. I suggest you use them.

Which is the most important area to spend money? 

If I could only afford one service then it would be the developmental edit/review… which you can find online for a few hundred pounds if you hunt around.

Why do you need it?

The problem is that as the author of the book you will have 100,000 words written down on the page but possibly another 200,000 words in your head. Due to the confusion about what is actually written down, the author often cannot see a problem relating to incomplete characterisation, or implausible plot moves, or (frequently in my case) lack of pace/urgency in the middle third of the book.

Reality Check 4: You don’t have to spend any money but if you don’t then you will be at a disadvantage to those people who are… sorry.

You’ve written a book: Now publish and market it.

The advent of Amazon has made self-publishing very easy. This is a double-edged sword as the barrier to entry (i.e., publishing a book) is so low that there is a lot of independently published rubbish out there… and they are badged ‘indie authors’ the same as you. So, you need to stand out (in a good way).

There are hundreds of self-help books on the internet about marketing your self-published novel, but (as I have read a handful of them) I can attest that, unfortunately, there are no magic solutions.

However, just about everyone agrees that reviews on Amazon and Goodreads are the lifeblood of the independent author.

How do you get reviews?

Frankly (FFS) the thought of doing it sends phantom pains down my legs and arms. Basically, it’s all about begging… not quite… planning in advance and begging.

For my most recent book (Immortal, a contemporary sci-fi thriller), I scoured the internet for book bloggers and Amazon reviewers who specialised in science fiction. Then, I wrote over two hundred personalised emails asking each blogger if they wanted a free review copy (eBook). I had about twenty people reply, and of those (to date), I have had seven reviews over a two-month period. I am still not sure if the effort was worth it… probably not.

Again… as well as the hundreds of books on Amazon dedicated to cracking the conundrum of ‘How to sell books on Amazon’, there are also Facebook groups and web forums.

Reality Check 5: There are no magic solutions.

Join a few web forums. Try to ascertain which other independent authors produce work that is most similar to your own writing genre/style. Read their experiences. Learn from them. But don’t believe everything you read!

And, a final point: Remember to keep it fun.

You’re doing something creative and valuable. You may not earn much money (or any). However, art for art’s sake is enough (and writing novels is undoubtedly art). Plus, even if you only get a hundred readers…

Hannah Bickerton
Hannah Bickerton
Hannah has worked in marketing for nine years, specialising in strategy development for start-ups and EdTech companies. Having recently jumped across industries to join the Whitefox team, Hannah isn’t a complete stranger to the publishing world with previous employment at Macmillan and TES Global. She is now dedicated to ensuring that anyone who has something interesting to say knows all about whitefox.