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Ten Qualities You Must Have To Succeed As An Indie Author

Successful Self PublishingShould I Self-Publish?  This is a question we’re regularly asked at ALLi by writers of all kinds, beginners and experienced. The answer, as with so many writerly questions is: it depends.

Self-publishing is not for every writer. Here are ten qualities that you will need to have, or develop, if you are to succeed as an indie author:

  • Positive and Proactive

So many writers wait for permission, from an agent or publisher or PR campaign. The flip side of this is chronic complaint syndrome. You won’t be in a roomful of writers too long before somebody starts to moan  about the vagaries of their agent or publisher. Not indies. Maybe indies don’t have time to whine, maybe we’re different by nature, but it’s probably something to do with being willing to take responsibility for the risks, as well as the rewards, of publishing ourselves.

  • Brave

Risk is our core activity. We risk time on ideas, or promotions, or concepts that may come to naught. We risk money to pay for editorial and design upfront. We also risk confidence and reputation. ALLi’s UK Advisor, Joanna Penn, has written of how her self-esteem plummeted when she left her high-paying job to become a self-publishing writer. Similarly, though I know I am a more authentic, more connected, and a better writer now, I also know that many think it’s a second-best option. “Wouldn’t you rather go back to being ‘properly’ published?” a family member asked me recently. Short answer: No.

  • Hardworking

This is an absolute essential. Indies are full of energy and commitment, not only to their writing but to educating themselves about all aspects of craft, editing, design and promotion. They work hard and they work smart, so they can recognize opportunities and figure out how to make the most of them, without derailing their writing, the engine of it all.

Indies love their work but most confess to having to having a constant stream of tasks awaiting attention and to needing to consciously block out times of rest, meditation, exercise and downtime into their schedules.

  • Know Your Readers

Some authors become self-publishers because they are recognized experts, or to enhance their standing in their field, or to justify an increase in their fees. Some because they are committed to a cause, or have a story that just has to be told. Regardless of their primary motive for writing, successful self-publishers all share a marketer‘s sensibility. They may not use marketing terms but they will not survive, never mind thrive, if they are not attuned to the needs of their readership and able to communicate with them.

  • Know Your Niche

Niche markets addressing special interests are often seen as too unprofitable to be of interest to trade publishing. In these overlooked niches is where many indie authors prosper.  Sometimes in the course of their endeavors, they create new genres and go mainstream (like S&M erotica for middle-class females — who knew?).

  • Entrepreneurial

The indies who do best have an entrepreneurial mindset — always on the lookout for new ways to reach readers, new communities who might be interested in their books, new opportunities to get their message out. They are savvy users of social media and know how to engage resources like email lists, newsletters, promotions, competitions and book giveaways to extend their readership. They are open to failure and willing to learn from mistakes and excited by the prospect of new projects and creative collaborations.

  • Resilient

Successful self-publishers, by definition, are those who have kept on keeping on, adapting where necessary, and following their hearts. As ALLi’s Creative Advisor, Mark McGuinness says in his new book, Resilience: Facing Down Rejection and Criticism on the Road to Success, in going indie writers need to ensure they haven’t exchanged traditional forms of rejection and criticism for others that can be just as painful and costly. “Anyone who says ‘don't take it so personally' doesn't understand what it's like when you are hit by a major rejection or biting criticism,” says Mark. “Successful indies have found ways to acknowledge the pain – and bounce back from the impact.”

  • Research-friendly

Indies follow gut feelings and intuitions but successful indies generally back horse sense with research to stay smart, sharp and up to date, to search out their readers, stay in touch with influencers in their field and  give their books an advantage. Whether it’s keyword research, marketing studies, direct mail tests or just dear old Professor Google, indies enjoy learning and growing and getting it right.

  • Money Friendly

Successful self-publishers don’t tend to be the kind of writers who say, “I don't care about money”, unless they have a benefactor or obliging day job.  Controlling costs is important for all businesses, and successful self-publishers take care of their resources and make sure they spend money where it will produce the biggest effect.

  • Collaborative and Supportive

That literary communities can be a tad bitchy is well known but the camaraderie within the indie author community is outstanding. Maybe we need each other more than other authors, but successful indies tend to operate out of what ALLi’s social media manager, Karen Lotter, calls Ubuntu, an African philosophy of inter-connectedness that says “I am because you are”.

Even if they are not that esoteric about it, indies are likely to work from the co-opetition model, where competitors co-operate for mutual benefit. Again and again, ALLi members attest to the benefits of sharing and learning from each other in this way and when asked, this interaction, support and encouragement is their number one benefit of membership.

What do you think? Are these qualities essential? Did we miss one out?


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  6. Great list! I totally agree with all your points, as well as Dan and his flexible focus. I am not naturally great at marketing but other indies have been so generous with their experiences that it’s really helped me focus my efforts. That’s the area where I feel like I work the hardest, only because it’s the one I’m not very good at.

    Organization is a key, too. I’m not naturally very organized, but when I decided to make writing a career, I knew I had to fix that or I wasn’t going to do anything else but write/market all day, every day. Having a schedule has really helped — I have a life again!

  7. Great post. I’m happy to say I possess most of these qualities — Or I should say I did three years ago when I self-published my first novel.

    When I first independently published, I had no idea what I was really getting into. Learning as I went, it was both frightening and exciting and I only had one gear – GO!

    But now, if I’m honest, I’ve been dragging my feet writing, at least partially, because I know just how much work awaits me once I self-publish the next book.

    No worries, I’m getting myself together. But if I could add one thing to this list of Indie Author must haves, I would add STAMINA. Self publishing, marketing, social networking, etc is exhausting. And you have to be prepared to run this long distance race.

  8. Great post! I especially like and agree with the final one on collaboration in the indie community. I have recently given two workshops to traditionally published authors who are now interested in indie publishing their works, and they cannot believe that I would share my knowledge so freely and openly with them, as they are accustomed to working within the highly competitive mindset arena of the traditional publishing world. Alli members have saved my mental sanity more times that I can count with advice freely given, along with much appreciated words of encouragement.

    I have to agree with JJ that spousal support is desirable but often lacking. In my case, my spouse often seems to actively interfere with my efforts ( playing the TV loudly, inviting friends over during my writing time, complaining of the collection of papers, research books, laptops and cords that accumulate etc,) and yet insists on being a beta reader ( and darn it! he often comes up with some brilliant suggestions…)

    I am printing this list off to refer to frequently, in times of sagging energy and nagging doubts.

    Alli, so true this – I am because you are.

  9. excellent! Out of those I’d single “know your niche” as one that people really need to work on – so many times I’ve seen writers with a fabulous USP that slots into a perfect niche say “oh no, I don’t write for a niche, I like to think this book appeals to everyone” – we don’t have the ability to reach “everyone” even if that were true.

    Obviously I’d disagree about the “money friendly” one but that’s just me – it depends how we mena “successful” I’d take Van Gogh successful over Dan Brown successful any day, even though I’d never be around to see it and have no heirs who’d ever get to see it either. And I know plenty who feel the same, so we should never assume.

    I’d add two that seem at first to be contradictory – peristent and flexible. Progress is slow in most things, and one of the keys (I am aware both from partial successes and because I am a terrible flitter so the successes remain partial) is plugging away at the same thing and not getting sidetracked (which makes it different from hard work – more like “smart work” or some other jargonese). Flexibility is within that overall persistently followed vision (so not a contradiction) – to try new things and see what happens, and most of all not being afraid to try and fail and try and fail repeatedly

    1. Definitely agree on the focussed flexibility, Dan. Or flexible focus — maybe that’s better jargonese? And also in the value of getting it wrong, so long as we learn from it. In which case we got it right!

  10. Wow! That’s a great post (Orna, was it you what wrote it?). The points made are sound, but reading them is like passing an exam, and I feel that I failed on one or two points. My efforts at reaching my readership have been pretty pathetic so far, have swallowed up enormous time resources and sometimes cash too, but with virtually no success.

    One factor missing from your list might be: An understanding and supportive partner. The more time I spend at my keyboard the closer I get to the divorce courts!

    Speaking of gripes, my one gripe is the number of times I’ve been stung by fellow indie writers who persuade me to buy their book, promising to reciprocate and then run away laughing when I fall into their trap. Happens to me all the time.

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