To mark the launch of the 2nd edition of ALLI’s guide to Creative Self-Publishing, Sacha Black interviews Orna Ross about the things she wished she’d known about self-publishing when she was starting out and how to carve out your own unique self-publishing pathway.
Our Foundational Self-Publishing Podcast is brought to you by specialist sponsor Izzard Ink: helping you navigate the publishing world while you stay in control of your work. Izzard Ink Publishing—Self-Publishing is no longer publishing by yourself. We would like to thank Izzard for their support for the show.
ALLi’s guide to Creative Self-Publishing is freely downloadable in e-book format by ALLi members, in the member zone. Log in and navigate to “advice” and then “guidebooks.” And it’s available for purchase in other formats and by non-members, in the ALLi bookstore. Go to selfpublishingadvice.org/creativebook. The print editions will launch in September. In the meantime, if you enjoyed the book, please give us a review.
And, if you haven’t already, we invite you to join our organization and become a self-publishing ally. You can do that at http://allianceindependentauthors.org.
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Watch the Video: Creative Self-PublishingTo mark the launch of the 2nd edition of ALLI’s guide to Creative Self-Publishing, @sacha_black interviews @OrnaRoss about the things she wished she’d known about self-publishing when she was starting out. Click To Tweet
About the Hosts
Sacha Black is a bestselling and competition-winning author of YA fantasy novels and non-fiction books that help writers develop their craft–and the blog editor at ALLi’s Self-Publishing Advice Center.
Read the Transcript: Creative Self-Publishing
Orna Ross: Hello everyone, and welcome to the Self-Publishing Advice podcast from the Alliance of Independent Authors. We’re on our foundational stream tonight. I’m here with Sacha Black. Hi, Sacha.
Sacha Black: Hello. Hello. How are you? It’s launch week for you.
Orna Ross: All sorts of crazy week for me. Yeah. Loads going on, but one of them is launching this second edition of Creative Self-Publishing.
What is creative self-publishing?
Sacha Black: It is exciting. So, let’s talk a little bit about Creative Self-Publishing and what creative self-publishing actually means, because aren’t we just self-publishing? Why have you put creative with it? What is creative self-publishing? Let’s start there.
Orna Ross: Okay. So, the reason for sticking that word at the beginning is there are a few things that it means, the first thing it means is that you do your books your way. So, there’s a lot of advice in the indie author space, as we know, and we add to it ourselves, both you and me, ALLi, and lots of other people, and then lots and lots of others as well. So, it can be really overwhelming for people to know what to do and what not to do at different stages of the process. So, at the core of this book is the seven processes of publishing that we talk about, that you look after on the blog, that we talk about here on the podcast, and everywhere in the ALLi ecosystem for want of a better word. So, that’s kind of what’s at the heart of it.
And those seven processes are set. No matter what kind of a publisher you are, whether you’re publishing your own work, or you’re a third-party publisher of somebody else’s work, you have to bring a book through editorial design, production, distribution, marketing, promotion, and then at the end of the cycle, rights licensing.
So, they are the processes of publishing and we must do those, but how we do them varies enormously. Just in the same way if you give a writing prompt to a room full of a hundred people, you will get 100 completely different stories or poems, or whatever you’re asking for. It’s exactly the same with an indie author business. If you go to set up a business, it’s not about doing what everybody else does. It’s about finding your own creative way.
So, what’s different about this book and a lot of the other guides to self-publishing is that it brings people, quite deeply in places, into their own creative process and their own values, their mission, their passion, their sense of purpose as a writer, and how to bring all that creativity, both in terms of the concepts that they have in the writing, but also in the creative skills that you learn in writing the book. Very often when it comes to publishing, they get thrown out the window and we’ll get very, kind of, conventional and follow the herd-ish. So, it’s about holding on to those creative skills that you’ve learned and applying them to the publishing process. And the book sets out a way to do that, and tries to help, and tries to empower authors who want to take that way of publishing.
For me, and I think for those for whom this is appealing, it makes the whole thing, a. More enjoyable, b. More connected to the writing. So, things like promotion and marketing become easier. And yeah, there are lots of reasons why you might adopt this way of doing things.
Sacha Black: One of the things that I love about this is that, for me personally, it’s a constant reminder to question any myth or assumption or truth that we’re told.
And I still, at least more than half a decade into this, get caught in thinking I have to do things a certain way. And this is what I love about this whole creative self-publishing, because it is a reminder that I can choose any genre and any method of publishing, and make it, because there are examples, even in ALLi membership, there are examples of each and every one of the 10 business models that are working, like at the moment, people being successful, people being six figure/seven figure authors. There are examples of people who are doing it exclusive and earning money, people who are doing it wide and earning money.
And I definitely have built up myths, and one of the things I was doing recently was, intentionally and purposefully looking for authors in my genre who are earning good money wide, because I had decided that wasn’t a thing that happened. And, of course, it is a thing that is happening, and I’ve proven that myth incorrect.
So, yeah, that is what I love about this whole creative self-publishing. Is that if you have the will and intention to look, there truly are people making good careers, solid careers, long-term careers in each and every different way, method, process of publishing, which is what I love.
How do you know when someone’s ‘gone indie?’
Sacha Black: So, one of the things you talk about in the book is that you can tell the difference between somebody who is indie and somebody who has “gone indie,” and I say that in air quotes for emphasis. So, could you tell everyone, what is the difference between indie and “indie”? How do you know when someone’s gone indie, like truly gone indie?
Orna Ross: Yeah, if you’re not able to say it in that way that tells them the difference using your voice. Yeah. So, the word indie author is used really widely, and essentially it has become synonymous with just self-publishing itself. So, there is a sort of a thing, if I self-publish, I’m an indie author. If I trade-publish, I’m whatever. And, you know, I’m an on-indie author, you know, I’m conventional, I’m establishment, or whatever words you might put on it, but the truth, as always, is more complex than that sort of polarity.
So, really indie is an attitude, and it’s an attitude that you bring to publishing. It’s not a mode of publication. So, indie is about being independent. It’s about understanding that assets create a business. It’s about taking decisions that are right for you and for your business, in partnership with publishing services, and those publishing services sometimes might include a trade publisher.
So, lots of our successful indie authors do work with trade publishers for translations, sometimes for print only deals; it isn’t about a mode of publication. And some people who self-publish, they just have a method whereby it is not that creative necessarily. It’s just the way that suits them, and it’s not particularly independent. It’s dependent on one outlet, which if that outlet doesn’t work at out, it’s quite dangerous for the business. So, I’m not saying that there isn’t creativity in those people’s work, there is immense creativity in the actual writing. I’m talking just about the publishing method.
In order to be indie, it means having an independent frame of mind. And I think that’s something that is learned as often as some people are just born that way, they just are fiercely independent from the start, and they bring that attitude into self-publishing. For a lot of people though, for a lot of authors, it’s a learned thing. So, you start off hearing received wisdoms and you believe them because, why wouldn’t you? And then you go through the process and you start hearing some other things and you begin to think, well, the only way I can know whether this is right or wrong is to give it a go myself, and then you try it this way and that doesn’t work, and you explore a bit more and you experiment a bit more, and then comes the moment where I say, you can see that people have gone indie, and it’s kind of hit home. And at that moment, everything steps up a notch. They begin to find their audience, their readership. They understand that they need to go niche. They understand how to set up their descriptions and their ads and everything else so that it targets the right readers. Everything kind of falls into place. They find their sense of purpose. They understand how the publishing connects to the writing, the writing to the publishing. They find themselves able to hold it all because, at the beginning, I think that’s the biggest challenge of all. You just feel a bit overwhelmed. You’re chasing your tail around the place. You keep going, but you’re not quite sure where you’re going, and that independence kind of kicks in and then a sense of direction becomes clear, and everything begins to integrate.
What mindset mistakes do indie authors need to avoid?
Sacha Black: You’ve talked about a lot there. So, the independence thing, what else do you think, mindset wise, people need to include? Are there any mindset mistakes they need to avoid? What are the big shifts, other than trying to keep independence, and I suppose balancing that business? It’s always that hard marriage, isn’t it, business with creativity? But what are the different mindset shifts and things that people need to bear in mind in order to truly go indie?
I love this “go indie”.
Orna Ross: Yeah, go indie, go creative.
So it is, first of all, shifting the mindset that business and writing are in some way opposed to each other, and it’s bringing those two together. So, applying the creativity to the business and not thinking, because, you know, I’m now over marketing and promoting, that suddenly it’s something hateful and horrible. It’s actually a continuation of your writing. It reinforces your message, everything. The way in which you choose to do your marketing and promotion should really link back into your motivations for writing. So, that’s one mindset that really does get in the way of creative self-publishing, it’s the idea that I love writing, but I hate marketing.
The mindset to adopt is, how do I make marketing creative and fun, and how do I connect it to my mission and my passion, and my sense of purpose as an author? What kind of marketing excites and delights me? And this is the thing where received wisdom comes in. There are loud voices in our community, and people who do things in certain ways, and then there becomes an assumption that, that’s the way to do it, but there are so many different ways, and I think you mentioned that at the start here.
I think you have to have the perspective of being in ALLi or a similar sort of group where there is a great diversity to recognize how possible it is to succeed in how many different ways, and that’s one of the reasons we have the inspirational indie author interview with our members, it’s to get that message out there, to show people the very various ways in which people are succeeding. So that’s one mindset thing.
Another would be adopting a growth mindset, and this is a concept put out there by Carol Dweck, the psychologist, many years ago. It’s a brilliant book if you haven’t read it, it’s just called Mindset. And she emphasizes there that adopting a growth mindset is all about, no matter what happens, you learn from it and you grow. So, rather than being stopped, or derailed, or knocked off your perch when something goes wrong, you realize that as a publisher, just as a writer, you’re going to take wrong turns, you’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to have setbacks, you’re going to get lost in the woods; it doesn’t matter. Every single step you take is a possibility. There is the possibility there for learning and it is getting you places.
And that’s the other thing, the worst kind of problem that we see is where people don’t know what to do next and so they do nothing. If you don’t know what to do next, do something, and then you pretty quickly know. And creativity is always doing, it isn’t thinking, it isn’t sitting around thinking and wondering, and second guessing, and trying to get right, it’s giving something a go.
How can indie authors market creatively?
Sacha Black: I think so many people have a fear of making a mistake, but unless you make those mistakes, you can’t have the successes.
I wondered, in today’s post there were lots of amazing examples of different ways people have creatively published, I wondered if there were some specifically about marketing? Because, as you were talking, I was like, Oh, okay, I don’t think I realized that I have been creatively marketing. But obviously, I have a rebel podcast, and I suppose the fun bit, for me, is that I allow myself to say naughty words, and to be cheeky, and to be sarcastic and, you know, dark humor and all of that good stuff, which is actually all in my books as well.
And, of course, everybody knows that podcasting is a form of marketing. I know that I’ve had one-star reviews because I’ve dropped some naughty words in my books, but I’m okay with that, and I suppose you’ve made me realize that that is my form of creative marketing. Because I get to be naughty and cheeky and rude, I enjoy doing it, and therefore I want to do it because I’m enjoying it. And it just so happens that the consequence of the podcast is that it is marketing. So, I suppose it’s like trying to find a Venn diagram of something that is marketing, that also attaches to something that you enjoy, and that is connected to your books. I don’t know, do you have any other examples of people who are doing the marketing side creatively?
Orna Ross: Yeah, there are so many people who do, and in fact, I think if you look at somebody who’s selling significantly in any genre and you look closely at the messaging in their book descriptions, the messaging in their book covers, you will find in there what’s at the heart of this, which you’re talking about. So for you, the rebel thing, it’s a value, rebelliousness and independence of mind, and so on. These are core values for you, and they turn up everywhere in your work and now they turn up everywhere, or not now, really from the start, I think you’ve done this, and they turn up everywhere in your marketing also.
And if you examine anybody who’s selling well, if you look at their book description, then you pick out the emotion, the value-based words, the words that carry the emotion, you will find that they have that in the heart of their marketing. And then if you go and you actually look at their website, and you look at everything around it, you can see where, oh, they dropped it there, or, oh that really worked well, they’re carrying that over, I can see what they’re doing there.
At the heart of creativity is your own values, and one of the sections of the book is very much about drilling down and finding out where your values as a writer are, and where your values as a publisher are, where they come together, and where your right reader shares those, and how you cross that bridge and talk to them.
Sacha Black: So, how do you do that? Because I think, for me, it was A. a little bit of time, B. a bit of soul searching, and C. probably terribly, also being told by my readers. So, I literally asked in my Facebook group, let’s play this game, what three words do you think of when you think of me? And I think 90% of them said rebel, which is how rebel came around, and I had no idea that, that was how people saw me.
So, other than being lucky enough to ask a Facebook group, how can people find, if they don’t know what their values are, how can you drill down? What exercises even, or advice do you have to get to that?
Orna Ross: So, it’s too long to talk about on the podcast, because it is a process that you go through, but the exercises are in the book, and in the planners, the workbook that accompanies the book, goes into it in more detail. So, there’s a hundred values and you just quickly go through and you circle those that have energy and resonance for you, and then there’s a process of breaking them down until you get closer.
But you’re right, there are all sorts of ways to do it. Asking your readers is a really, really good way to do it. Looking at your reviews is a good way to do it. If you go through your own reviews and, again, just highlight just the emotion words, just the value words, you’ll see patterns, you’ll see things that crossover. And then you can look at your comparable authors, and comp books, and you can look at the reviews that they get and see, are they getting similar sorts of things, or how is it different? And it’s in those subtleties, the subtleties of difference, is where you find it. It’s a niche thing, it’s not going to be a big, wide, overarching general kind of value. It’s going to be something that’s smaller and more niche, and it’s in the subtleties of difference.
In other words, it takes a bit of time, and this is one of the things about the creative self-publishing approach. It isn’t something that happens overnight, quick and easy. It’s an ongoing, it’s, sort of, the rest of your life as a publisher.
Sacha Black: Not too big of a commitment then.
Orna Ross: Yeah, exactly. For as long as you publish, if you take this approach, then you continue developing and growing it, and deepening it. It just happens by nature of doing it.
Sacha Black: So, obviously, I mean, I’m a sicko, I go read all my reviews. So, I know loads of people advise not to do that, but I do, because I like to see where I can improve, or where people just don’t like my swearing, but I never, ever thought to look at the emotion words. I have patterns spot, but not with that angle. I think that is fantastic advice. I’m definitely going to go and do that, because, obviously, the whole point in your marketing is to market with the emotion, and that is the hook that people come for. It’s that emotional feeling or emotional trope that they’re after, I suppose is what I’m getting at. I never thought to look for that. I think that’s fantastic.
What are the top indie author success measures?
Sacha Black: Can we talk about success measures, because I think one of the things that often happens is, you come in to the industry and the only measure that’s ever talked about is the number of sales?
Whereas, for me, I mean that obviously is important and it is one of my measures, but another one of my measures is the fact that I get to drop my son at school and pick him up every single day. And I suppose that is the freedom measure for me. I don’t have anybody telling me that I have to do this at this time, or whatever. And my poor wife does have that, and today I got to go and get a washing machine, because ours died, but anyway, it’s that freedom thing. So, other than sales, what are those indie success measures?
Orna Ross: First of all, it’s really important to devise your own. So, that one you’ve talked about there is really key and really important for you, that flexibility and freedom. The four measures that the book talks about is, number one is productivity. So, that’s words written, or books published, as the first one.
The second one then is that sense of purpose, your satisfaction with the feeling that you are engaging with whatever you feel is your purpose in writing, as a writer.
The third is profit, and that’s something that isn’t measured enough in the indie community, because people are afraid of that whole side of things at the beginning. Not everybody by any means, I’m generalizing wildly there, but there is a large group of people within the community that measures income but not profit. So, that’s an important measure and there’s a whole chapter in the book about paying yourself first, and how to recognize profit, and the difference between salary, profit, and your income from your books, which are three completely different things.
And then the fourth measure is personal, and that’s where your freedom thing would come in. Personal happiness, really, personal pleasure in the work, and that’s just measured subjectively. There’s kind of a joke thing, your creative happiness quotient and you measure it kind of one to 10 and it fluctuates and varies, and it’s a way of seeing weather sometimes you’ve got stale and you’ve got into a rut, you’re not that happy, but you don’t know why.
So, these four measures, as we go through the book, we constantly refer back to these, because they are the measures of success, regardless then of what your own, within each of those, you set your own personal, you know, how many books? One author might be thrilled to do one book every two years, because the books are really heavily researched and they’re academic tones or whatever, whereas somebody else wouldn’t be happy unless they did a book every two months. So, you decide, you set your own parameters of success, and I think that’s the most important thing. That’s the creative thing. If somebody else is setting the agenda for you, then the creativity goes out the window.
How do authors choose between the projects they enjoy and those that make money?
Sacha Black: I think one of the, slight tangent, but one of the pulls that I always have is, writing the things that I know that will make money versus writing the things that I want to write, like the fun projects or the passion projects, and I think that’s possibly a balance that you have to strike, in any business. Even, I suppose, inventors or whatever, the products that they know will make good money versus the products that they might want to make, because that’s their passion project.
Orna Ross: Yeah, it’s a funny business, I will say on that, because you’ve raised something really interesting and very important, I think, it’s a funny, old business, publishing. It definitely isn’t a science, it’s an art, and sometimes the things we think are going to make the money don’t, and sometimes the things we think definitely won’t get go down well are the things that go down best of all. And I think it’s also, when it comes to any sort of divide or polarity like that in our thinking, it’s always worth asking some questions, what is it that makes me feel I don’t really like this, but it will make money? Why am I putting the commercial hat on this and not the creative hat? How would I produce a book around this topic, but in a really creative and personal way? What would I have to do with this idea to make it something that would score very highly on my four measures? So, almost not letting ourselves thank that way, constantly questioning everything that you think as a set kind of, this is how it is, asking yourself the question, is it true? How do I know that this is true? If I turned it around, what would it look like? Would it look different?
Sacha Black: So, it’s interesting. So, from a personal perspective, I have been to-ing and fro-ing on whether or not to write adult fantasy rather than young adult fantasy, which is where my heart is, because of the whole swearing and rebellion and blah, blah, blah, not really meshing with a core young adult audience, but I’ve basically decided that I’m going to stick with young adult because that’s what I love, and I’m going to find a way to push the boundaries of what is acceptable whilst still retaining the young adult, sort of, atmosphere, tone, tropes, that kind of stuff.
So, there again, that is an example of doing it your way. And look, you can tell just from my face, how happy I am, the fact that I’m going to stick to doing the thing that I love most, but also my way. So yeah, let that be a lesson. You can find a way.
Orna Ross: You can find a way! And that is the test, I think, that big smile, that good feeling, and I definitely am of the opinion, and I know not everybody is, and I think that’s the other thing about this book, some of the stuff finishes absolutely core principles and policies that definitely work for everybody across the board, and some of it then is my own personal ideas. I distinguish in the book, I think I have anyway, I’ve certainly tried to be very meticulous about that and distinguish between, what is something that I’ve seen work for everybody, and I would think of as a general rule and advice that works for everybody, and what’s just my opinion and my way of doing it.
And it’s hard to isolate those two actually, especially in a book like this, because you don’t understand your own prejudices and you don’t see them. You don’t know what you don’t know. But, for me, if anybody ever asks, should I do what I want to do, or should I do the thing that I think will be more sensible and make more money or whatever, my thing is always, follow your heart. Because this business is really hard, it’s hard to write and hard to write well, it’s hard to publish and it’s hard to run a creative business. And if the joy is not there, if you start moving from always balancing the passion of the profit, the creative and the commercial, but if you start leaning too heavily down on the commercial side, then you’ve lost one of the points of being in this business in the first place. Because if you’re working from a commercial imperative, there are things you could do that would be a lot easier and a lot more successful than writing and publishing. So, one of the big rewards is that. It’s that you get to do what you really truly want to do. And there’s almost no topic and no treatment that you cannot find a niche for now, because of the size of the global audience and therefore, selling well in a small niche that really suits you, and that you love, it’s as easy to make that happen as it is to sell and something that you feel will have legs and we’ll go further, because in those genres, there tends to be more competition.
Sacha Black: I completely agree. I remember hearing a lady on a podcast, I forget when, it was a long time ago. Well, not that long, long in the indie world is like a year or two, but it was like maybe 18 months ago about a lady who wrote in some seriously niche genre like historical Scandi, noir romance, or something, and was making a hundred grand a year.
And I was like, you know, this just shows, if you can find your audience, you really can write in any genre you could possibly desire.
Orna Ross: Absolutely, and we’re seeing new genre coming up out of indie authors and their particular things that they wanted to write about that there weren’t even categories for in libraries and bookstores a few years ago. And these genre, these niches have been completely created out of the fact that these authors wanted to write about this topic. And before now, they wouldn’t have been given the publishing space to do so, but now they are, and lo and behold, they love writing it and loads of people love reading it.
We’ll be back next week with our Self-Publishing Poetry podcast with Trish Hopkinson, and she’s going to be talking about all the different ways you can make money around your poetry books. And we will have a poem of the month from our #indiepoetryplease people then as well.
So until then, happy writing and happy publishing. Happy creative publishing!