Monday, February 8, 2016

5 Tips to Successful Self-Publishing

Roseanna M. White pens her novels beneath her Betsy Ross flag, with her Jane Austen action figure watching over her. When not writing fiction, she’s homeschooling her two children, editing and designing, and pretending her house will clean itself. Her novels range from biblical fiction to American-set romances to her new British series. She lives with her family in West Virginia. Learn more at

There's no denying that self-publishing is here to stay, and it's changing the shape of the publishing industry. As someone who has tried absolutely every kind of publishing known to man, including self-publishing, Stephanie asked if I'd talk to you guys a bit about what made my self-pub venture ultimately successful. Naturally, I'm happy to oblige. ;-)

First off, I have to tell you a little about how I ended up where I am in the industry. Growing up as the internet age was just getting its feet wet, my teen years were spent trying to learn the industry through those old-fashioned things called books. And messing up a lot. There were no writers groups online yet. No forums. Certainly no Go Teen Writers. But I had stories and I had determination and I wasn't afraid to try new things.

When print-on-demand technology first appeared on the market, my husband and I gave it a try with a series of short-stories. I think we sold, oh, about fifteen copies. Maybe. ;-) But did that daunt us?

Um, yeah. Kind of. I became pretty determined to be published by a regular, big publisher. Preferably one who would offer me a million dollar advance (ahem). My husband, on the other hand, became determined to become a publisher.

Many of you know me as an editor for WhiteFire Publishing. WhiteFire is the company my husband began, and at the time when we were starting it, we were basically self-publishing, given that my titles were our only titles. And way back in 2005, self-publishing came with a stigma. It was what you did when you weren't good enough to cut it with a real publishing house. The still-new POD technology meant high prices for each book, and most self-pubbers decided they'd just pass that cost along to the consumer...and thereby not sell many copies. Press runs were expensive up front, and you had to warehouse all the books. Ebooks weren't really a thing yet.

My husband was interested in the physical production of books, so we did the unthinkable--we bought printers, ink, paper, book board, cover stock, a gold-foil stamper, other things whose name I don't even remember, and we created our own hardback version of my debut book, A Stray Drop of Blood. Printed and bound in-house. Literally. In my house. At my kitchen table.

We made a set number of them--about 250, I think. And we just sold them until we ran out.

Is that a huge number of books? Um, no. But while that original version was out there, I was learning a lot about writing in the modern world. I joined ACFW and quickly realized all the many things I was doing wrong. Like, all of it. I was head-hopping, I was telling rather than showing, I didn't always start with action.

So I put aside Stray Drop. I wrote other books. I went to a conference. I gave very little thought to WhiteFire and self-publishing. My focus was, again, on those big contracts.

Then a funny thing happened. I sold out of my hardbacks of A Stray Drop of Blood. And people were asking me about paperbacks. My husband and I sat down one day on our porch, and we evaluated. We had two choices: to let it die or to do it all again. And I loved that story too much to let it die. I said I'd like to rewrite the book (without the headhopping, etc) and re-release as a paperback. New cover. New ISBN. New everything. I felt like I could make a better go of it at that point in time, in 2009. I had 4 years of learning under my belt.

So that's what we did. Self-publishing was still looked down on at that point in history, and I knew well that plenty of people would advise me against it. But I had quite literally nothing to lose. The story was already self-published--all I'd be doing was making it better. So I rewrote. We hired a professional cover designer. I lined up influencers and blog tours and got endorsements from author friends I had made through ACFW. I contacted each and every person who commented on those blog posts afterward and offered them a 20% coupon code for the book from my personal store.

Right about that time Amazon launched KDP, so we signed up for that and got the ebook out there--and priced it low. At a time when all the big presses were pricing ebooks and paperbacks at the same price point, and when few indies were out there yet, we set our digital prices at $3.99

And books started selling. Slowly at first. That first year, I might have sold 100 books. But my agent gave me some sound advice--follow it up with another in the same genre. While A Stray Drop of Blood was gaining its traction, I was working away on Jewel of Persia, which came out a year later. It started off a little stronger right out of the gate, though by no means set the world on fire. I finally landed contracts with other publishers, but I continue to write biblical fiction for WhiteFire, because each one I put out increases the sales on all of them--they build upon each other. Even though I now have 7 books out with other companies (it'll be 8 in April), I have a new bib-fic coming out from WhiteFire this fall too. Because it's important to me to maintain and feed that readership. A readership that has grown over the years into something pretty impressive. Excluding my recent series with Bethany House (I don't have sales numbers on that yet), my biblical fiction has out-sold any other books I've written.

What made it work? In part, these things will always be a mystery. But there are a few things I know for a fact set my titles apart.

Always, always story. I had unique story lines that pushed some boundaries but always brought the reader a message of hope. They tackled familiar stories through fresh eyes and brought readers a new perspective on things they thought they knew about (the crucifixion/resurrection and the Esther story). I loved these stories. I felt they approached things that mattered to me in ways that hadn't been done. I felt like I grew as I wrote them. I felt that the stories were worth it, apart from whether I ever made a dime from them. They needed to be written. When you carry that kind of passion into your work, it comes through. And that matters.

I know that in this day and age, it's so tempting to write The End one day and push Publish the next...or the next week or month. DON'T. Edit. Revise. Then have someone else edit and revise it too, because you will NEVER catch all your own mistakes. Please, please take this necessary time to polish your book! It makes a huge difference in whether readers talk about you to all their friends or...don't. And word of mouth will always be the best sales tool. A critique partner is great, but you really, really need an actual editor. There are a ton of freelance editors out there, and though their prices might cause you some sticker-shock at first, they're worth every penny.

I know, we shouldn't judge books by their covers.. But we do. We so, so do. One of the best investments I made was a $600 cover for A Stray Drop of Blood, and another for Jewel of Persia. It seemed ridiculous at the time. But I know for a fact those covers have sold copies--people told me so.

Our covers are the first impression our books make, and when you self-publish, you have full control over what that cover looks like. Take advantage of that. Don't just slap some text on a stock photo and call it good (well, I mean, there are some really awesome stock photos that would work with, but in general...). Make your book stand out. And be glad that cover designing has come way, way down since my first covers! What I paid $600 for seven years ago would only cost me about half that now. And other options are even less. (As a side note, I'm now a pro cover designer myself...but I wasn't at the time, and I'm the first to admit it. I actually learned a ton about the process by seeing what the designer I hired came up with and studying those covers in depth.)

It doesn't matter if you're 15 or 50--if you're publishing a book, you need to treat it like a professional decision. Approach bloggers and reviewers with decorum and respect. Be friendly but don't come off as begging. Show them your passion for your story, but always remember that your job is not to defend your book. As Glennon Melton says in this awesome article, you are not your art's lawyer. Your job is to create, call it good (after putting in the hard work to make it so), and then to rest. Getting defensive about others' opinions of your work is a fast way to burn out--or worse, to get the cyber-circles up in arms against you. 

That said--part of being a profession is selling your work. I mentioned above that I contacted every person who commented on a blog post. Every. Single. One. I thanked them for taking time to visit with me. I offered them a coupon code. I invited them to other online events. I was on a different blog every week, at least, for two months. I made friends. I made connections. And I didn't rely on selling only to my friends and family this time around--I worked for each and every sale at the beginning, until those people started talking about my books and the snowball effect took over.

Successful self-publishing fills a niche market. The kind that doesn't pay for big publishers, but which still has a dedicated readership. You need to know who that readership is...and it is never "people from 9 to 90, male and female, from all walks of life." It's just not. A few books transcend all boundaries and do appeal to almost everyone, but no one ever knows when they have that book in their computer. Have a specific market in mind. Connect with that market--with other writers of it and with readers of it. Let those people know where your book is like the ones they already love, and what sets it apart. Using my books as an example--in 2009, no big publisher was looking for biblical fiction, but I knew it had sold well in the past. I knew there were readers for it--and that I just had to find them. This is the great thing about genre readers--they will give any new author a try if it's in a genre they love. Take advantage of that.

So there you go. You've followed the rules, and you've put your work out there. But what then? How do you know if you should concentrate just on your own books or if you should become a publisher yourself and take on other titles?

Well...that's a topic for another post, so stay tuned. ;-)


  1. Great post!!! I've been considering self-publishing for a while now but my work is not quite ready yet :)

    1. And knowing that is honestly a fabulous first step along the journey, LOL.

  2. This is a great post! This year in June, I hit publish on my first self-published novel, but only after I'd spent nine months editing it and having it professionally edited, getting a professional cover, etc.

    I think #4 above is probably most important. Be professional. Treat self-publishing like a business. I grew up in a family of small business owners, and I've worked as a secretary for several of my relatives. So treating something like a business is something I'm familiar with. If you treat self-publishing like a business, you're going to see a professional cover and edit as an investment instead of simply a huge expense. You'll remember to be courteous online.

    It also helps to wait until you're ready. This is true for any form of publishing, but I'm thankful that I didn't hit that publish button until I was ready.

    1. Sounds like you have a great handle on it! And that experience with small businesses is awesome.

  3. I would LOVE to someday design my own novel's cover!!

    1. It's never too early to practice! Have fun learning how it works. =) I have some step-by-step design posts on my personal blog, if you click on the Book Cover Design labels. (

    2. It's never too early to start practicing design! Even if you don't end up doing your own cover, there's still your social media headers, blog post pictures, marketing materials such as book marks, blog tour headers, quote pictures for sharing, etc. that an author ends up designing once they are marketing their books.

      I found this all out the hard way. I taught myself how to use Photoshop WHILE releasing my first book. If you want to avoid a nervous breakdown, I wouldn't recommend doing that. If I could go back, one thing I'd do differently would be to learn Photoshop or one of the free online photo manipulation sites earlier. It would've saved a lot of hassle and my earlier marketing materials would've looked a bunch more professional.

  4. Great post! Thank you For Sharing this!

  5. Thanks sososososo much for this post! I'm hoping to self publish in the near future. I'm going through lots of editing right now.

  6. Thank you so much, Mrs. White! An excellent post as always, and definitely an inspiring story. :D I greatly enjoyed hearing about your own journey - it's amazing how the Lord worked all that out for you and how He brought you from that to this! :) It's encouraging for me, and is a great reminder yet again that doing things the right way and having both patience and dedication will all pay off in the end. Thank you again, Mrs. White - you're an inspiration to me!! :)

  7. LOTS of great tips and insights here. Thanks.