14 Tips for Becoming an Indie Author
You’re thinking about writing and publishing a book by yourself? And, you’re wondering about the process, and may be concerned about missing something?
I’ve written 5 books with my publisher, O’Reilly, and 15 as an independent author, recently with my own publishing outlet, Frontend Dogma. I’m still learning about the publishing business, every day, but there are a few things I have learned (I hope). Let me share these things, if it can help you get started.
- Start With an Ebook
- Choose a Comfortable Writing Setup
- Write Regularly (by Establishing a Routine)
- Don’t Feel Obliged to Write Much
- Use Inspiration and Flow
- Don’t Use AI Tools
- Work With an Editor
- Hire a Cover Designer
- Be Kind to Yourself
- Distribute Widely
- Keep on Learning
- Write More
- Promote as You Please
Start With an Ebook
Despite the convenience of ebooks, more print books are being bought than ebooks. While this means a smaller market for publishers, ebooks are easier and cheaper to create than print books. Start with an ebook.
Let me underscore this both as a reader and as an author—ebooks have many advantages over print books.
Choose a Comfortable Writing Setup
While you don’t have to write hours on end (more on that in a second), you do want to be comfortable when writing. As such, play with different word processors and text editors, as well as work environments, to find what’s to your liking. There’s nothing definite here as it’s precisely the point that you try out various settings to tell what works well for you.
For me, I do most of my writing in a text editor (BBEdit), in my IDE (WebStorm), or in Google Docs. I don’t care too much about the work environment, but as my post-pandemic life is still less eventful than it used to be, that’s largely at home, at my desktop machine, at a standing desk.
Write Regularly (by Establishing a Routine)
A key to writing is—writing. While that’s obvious, what’s not obvious is that it’s not about the amount you write, but how regularly you write. For this purpose, consider writing with a well-defined frequency—say, every day, or every work day, or every Saturday, or whatever cadence you prefer. To get yourself started, consider setting yourself reminders.
Don’t Feel Obliged to Write Much
At the same time, re-set your expectations on how much to write each session. Set them low, very low—say, a sentence, or perhaps just anything (if only a word). It’s easier and likely more effective to write just a little every n days, than vast runs of text every other intervals.
I’ve worked successfully with “write every day, but however much you like,” and moved to a lesser-defined frequency today, after I’ve built more experience and rely on some other techniques mentioned in this post. Like the next one:
Use Inspiration and Flow
While you can push yourself into writing (a quality one can acquire, but that I wouldn’t emphasize here), it’s much more efficient to use inspiration as well as flow (“the zone”) you have in the moment.
That is, in moments when you seem to be overflowing with ideas, or when you can write without effort, stay in these moments—cherish and use them.
In such moments, I’m driving my partner nuts, because I tend to forget time, and push back on obligations where possible—that’s how much I value these opportunities. You get so much more done in a moment of flow, that it saves you hours of time elsewhere.
Don’t Use AI Tools
Don’t use ChatGPT or other AI tooling to write for you. While AI may seem helpful to quickly generate some content, it’s likely to read soulless (as per one of my editors) and contain issues that require much more editing. That will help you improve as an editor—but not as a writer. Working with AI will for that reason also not feel like you wrote the book.
I’ve written a book with AI (The Problems With All the Good Things), but quite deliberately and transparently as I did so to make a particular point. You may find similar use cases. For purposes of starting out as an author or writer, however, I recommend to begin with a different project.
Work With an Editor
Even as an indie author, you need an editor. While you can ask friends and peers for help, it pays off to hire a professional. One good platform for this is Upwork—while you may need to try working with different editors (maybe you want to invest in more experience, or prefer a different work style), any editor is better than no editor.
I used to be nervous about my editors (for my first books for O’Reilly), then I skimped on this (for my first indie books), then I had hits and misses, and now I’m glad I’ve acquired some pool of editors to work with, and a sense for their approach. It’s useful to understand that the “tougher” an editor may seem—which can be quite uncomfortable at first—, the better it usually is for our work.
Hire a Cover Designer
Unless you’ve had some design training, hire a cover designer, too. (Don’t try to save on it, as may be the case with platforms like Fiverr, so try Upwork for a designer, too.)
In my work as an indie author and publisher, I’ve probably done more covers myself than I hired cover designers for. I’ve done some pretty bad ones, but also some that work okay. Would this contradict my advice? No—I’ve had some training, and my recommendation holds. But, a nice segue for the next point, it’s your call, and you could also:
Don’t be afraid. (Though easier said than done, that’s generally good advice.) Work with a mindset of trying things out, of experimenting. This works better if you can detach yourself from that “one perfect book” you’re going to produce, and if you grant yourself room for errors—and improvements. Here you’ll particularly benefit from starting with ebooks, as you can update the manuscript as well as the cover once you shipped. Embrace it.
Be Kind to Yourself
Then, important: Don’t be hard, be kind to yourself. Especially when starting out, writing a book can be intimidating. (Your own expectations may be intimidating!) Trust the process, of slowly but surely adding to your book, of being able to course-correct and make future updates, of having professional help.
I remember my first book project, for O’Reilly, and signing my contract with them. The book outline and size of the manuscript were defined before one word was written—and with, if I recall correctly, a 250-page target this left me with a mountain to climb. Back then I took this with an attitude of “just do it,” and relying on the O’Reilly team; 20 titles later, my attitude is one of building on experience, trusting a network of professionals, and making constant improvements (“living books”).
As an indie author and publisher, you may start with one platform—Amazon’s KDP, Lulu, or maybe Leanpub. You may develop the appetite to publish your next title on that platform, too. That can be fine and actually quite useful—but even with Amazon being the ebook platform, increase your reach, and sell on additional platforms.
My standard set of sites I’m selling my books on include the following (in descending order of perceived reach):
I also have cooperations with magazines like SitePoint, who make my technical titles available as part of their Premium program. This is something worth mentioning as for your own books, you may find niche sites that can help you distribute your work, too.
For my first three indie books, I had put everything in the Amazon basket. While that worked well enough to sell a good number of them, a later pivot to Leanpub as my “main” platform (they are fantastic to generate books from Markdown pulled from GitHub) was the first and most impactful step for me to increase reach. I made books available on other platforms soon after, and apart from Payhip, which I can’t make good use of yet, they all—paid off.
Keep on Learning
Experiment with your writing and your output, but also learn more about writing and publishing. One of the most excellent books I’ve read is Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools. (I also love William Strunk Jr.’s classic, The Elements of Style, on the editing side.) You’ll find other books, as well as videos and courses, that help your indie author journey.
Once you’ve completed your first book, consider continuing. The hard part is done, as every additional book will be easier and easier to write and publish. If you aren’t already working with other formats, like articles or blog posts, consider doing that as well. It will provide you with a broader perspective, additional experience, and perhaps marketing opportunities. (If you’re doing this on your own website, even better—there are many advantages to that).
Promote as You Please
A final tip coming from someone who’s still learning about marketing: If you’re interested in and enjoy promoting and marketing your book(s), do it. If you don’t, don’t sweat it. Now, if you approach writing with the ambition of selling millions of copies in dozens of languages, this will not satisfy you—but you may already have ideas about your marketing as well. (Go for it.) But if writing and publishing are the priority for you, don’t bend over backwards to promote it. Or—look for someone who has been successful doing that by themselves. (I think Adam Clarke sketched some useful starting points with his SEO book, but I need to review.)
❧ The Web is amazing when it comes to the opportunities it provides us with, including that it makes it easy and affordable to publish books. The Web also makes it easy to make little out of these opportunities, both in terms of the output as well as our growth. These tips sketch ways to use the opportunities so that the output is solid, and that some growth as a author and publisher is assured. If these tips have helped you, please share this article—or check out one of my own indie books. (Thanks!)
I’m Jens, and I’m an engineering lead and author. I’ve worked as a technical lead for companies like Google, I’m close to W3C and WHATWG, and I write and review books for O’Reilly and Frontend Dogma. I love trying things, not only in web development, but also in other areas like philosophy. Here on meiert.com I share some of my views and experiences.
If you have a question or suggestion about what I write, please leave a comment (if available) or a message. Thank you!
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