Australian ALLi Partner Member Jessica Bell, author, poet, book designer and founder of a small indie imprint, shares her success story as an indie author/poet/book designer singer/songwriter/small imprint publisher, from which three key takeaway points stand out:
1. Books sales are not the be-all and end-all. You can use your self-publishing knowledge to make an income in alternative ways.
2. Follow your instincts. Just because a certain method or strategy is common and ‘proven’ to work, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right for you.
3. Don’t be afraid to ‘be yourself’ on social media. You will always win some fans, and lose some fans, depending on how you behave and communicate online. But as long as you do not fake your public personality, you will always keep the fans who genuinely like you. It’s better to have hundreds of loyal and supportive fans that trust and believe in you, than thousands of people who ignore everything you post because they don’t really know you are.
What is your proudest achievement to date as an indie author?
I have achieved so much to be proud of since I started self-publishing in 2011, such as being able to quit my day job due to building my own successful book cover design business, and being considered enough of an expert in my field to obtain sponsorship from IngramSpark to run a live Self-Publishing Masterclass event in London.
But I have to say that my proudest achievement has nothing to do with money or growing my annual income. Success means a whole lot more to me when I am personally and creatively fulfilled. I still hold extremely dear, the day my poem, Sugar (Fabric, 2012), was read aloud on Australian National radio—ABC’s Poetica program. I still get a really lovely mushy feeling in my stomach when I think about this. Not because the poem was read aloud on radio, but because it was read aloud on radio in my home country. To be recognized in Australia after living and working abroad for the last 13 years is a milestone I wish I could frame and put on my wall. But I know that in the eyes of many, this ‘success’ is quite small. Which is why I tend to start answers like this with the ‘big’ stuff.
What’s the single best decision you ever made?
To not rely on book sales to reach my dreams. I have always wanted to be my own boss. To be in control of my own career choices, to be able to take holidays whenever I wanted, and to be able to afford to travel whenever I wanted. (I love to travel!) And as of March this year (2017), I have achieved this. But I didn’t rely on the hope of one of my books hitting the New York Times bestseller list to make this a reality.
I have accepted that my style of writing is not commercial, and that the chances of making hundreds and thousands of book sales is quite low. So I started to think outside the box.
I still write and publish my own books, but I also do the following to supplement my income:
- I am the founder and Publisher of Vine Leaves Press
- I am a book cover designer
- I am the co-ordinator of Writing Day Workshops
- I am the founder and co-ordinator of Self-Publishing Masterclass
- I am also the singer of Keep Shelly in Athens, but I know that has nothing to do with books!
With my fingers in all these pies, I am making a very comfortable living, and loving absolutely everything I do.
What’s been your biggest surprise as an indie author?
The stigma. Coming from a background of independent music, I had subconsciously expected indie authors to be treated like indie musicians. Yes, the stigma is slowly going away, but I constantly feel I have to prove that this career choice isn’t a ‘cop out’.
What is your greatest challenge – and how do you deal with it?
My greatest challenge has now been dealt with. For a very long time, I didn’t know how to market myself or my books, because I didn’t write series, nor in any one genre. I’d receive marketing advice after marketing advice that just did not work because I was targeting audiences that would not pick up my books. After a few years of many trials and many errors, and discovering for myself, that my books would not succeed in the mainstream market, I identified that the style of my writing always remained the same. Last year I came up with a slogan for my books—Beautiful Ugly Words.
I branded myself as an author and created a cohesive book cover look that represented my writing style, instead of genre.
I am extremely comfortable in my new skin, and now I also know to only target readers with acquired tastes or the desire to stray from their reading habits. You can read more about how I did this here.
How do you get/stay in a creative mood?
I am not sure I understand when/if my creative mood stops and starts. No matter what I’m doing with my time, even if it’s boring bookkeeping, the imaginative part of my brain seems to be working in the background. To answer the question of ‘how’ this happens, I imagine it’s because my creative energy isn’t focused on one type of art. I have writing, graphic design, and music. So if I’m not thinking about one thing, I’m thinking about another.
If there is any tip here, I’d say it’s ‘Don’t limit yourself to one kind of art.’
How do you remain productive/motivated?
I have a hard time NOT being productive/motivated. I struggle to allow myself down time, which I have to admit, I should change. When you’re successfully running your own business, and doing the things you love, I don’t feel that staying motivated becomes an issue. Perhaps the simple answer to this is, ‘Do what you love!’
What’s your favourite thing about being an author–publisher?
I can do whatever I like, whenever I like, however I like.
What are your top tips for other ALLis?
Including the three key things I’ve learned from my self-publishing experience that are mentioned at the beginning of this post, here are two more:
- There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to sell millions of books and/or to become a New York Times bestselling and award-winning author. But try to have other goals which define your success too. It helps if at least half of those goals are not routes to third-party validation, but instead self-satisfaction. If you can feel good about what you have achieved without anyone else knowing about it, then you will still feel like a success when sales figures aren’t what you had hoped for.
- If you’re thinking about building your own business related to helping other authors self-publish, don’t rush into it. Start small, keep your day job and work nights and weekends, slowly collect clients, gain their trust. Offer competitive prices. Don’t prioritize the money, prioritize your relationships with your clientele. My book cover design business enabled me to quit my job without a single bit of advertising because my clients recommended me to others. Every single client I had before I quit my job approached me because of word-of-mouth recommendations. When I decided to go full time, I started to advertise. And still, two out of three clients, find me via word-of-mouth.
I’m hoping to just keep doing what I’m doing, to be honest! I’ve made many changes in my life this year. Now I need to just settle into my new routine.#Selfpublishing success stories - this week, @MsBessieBell Click To Tweet