I Return From The Desert: 10 Commandments For Starting Indies

A couple of years ago, wandering through the southern California desert, I saw a burning bush (as is typical of the region for 9 months out of the year). And during the time when this bush was burning I swear I heard someone telling me that it would be a good idea to go and do something that everyone else figured was damn foolish. Now, as I say this, you might think that I was dehydrated or suffering a heat stroke in the sun. You might even think that the bush in question was of a questionable form of herb that wasn’t legal in the country I reside in. But whatever was happening in those moments I can tell you one thing for certain:

Never take your career advice from a hallucination.

Two years later and I’ve found that being indie is a longer, harder road than I even imagined. Honestly, I burned out and lost my way for a while. Thankfully, it wasn’t 40 years, but I have come back rocking a freshly styled beard and sporting a brand new manuscript that I swear wasn’t written by some mysterious ghost writer.

And anyone who claims otherwise is a damned liar

I’ve had time to recollect myself. I’ve figured out the things I did right, the things I did wrong, and the things I could have done a little better. And now, like many other authors on the internet, I’m “honoring” you with the knowledge I earned the hard way.

1. Thou Shalt Tweet To The Masses

Twitter is an amazing tool if you know how to use it. Unfortunately I didn’t and for years I didn’t see a follower count break the three digit mark. Honestly, I would have had more followers if I listened to the other flaming bush and started a cult.

Proof you don’t need talent to get followers

However, the thing I learned in surprising ways was that, even if you aren’t the master of it, it still makes an impact. Every time I used twitter to promote the book I found the traffic jumped at least four to five times what it was normally. If I’d had the followers I assume it would have been even better than that. A lot of people who use twitter either have blind faith In it or attempt, fail, and decide it was probably a myth. But I’ve seen the cold hard numbers and I can tell you that the proper use of social media is everything they’ve said it is. However…

2. Thou Shalt Not Take Twitter In Vain

When people have been on it long enough there’s a mentality that Social Media’s some sort of magic bullet that’s going to cure all of their ills. But a book I read during my self-imposed exile informed me that twitter had a very specific set of statistics behind everything anyone ever did. In fact, I found that most people who try to use the thing for advertising their books are doing it wrong more often than not.

The short of it is: Unless you’re already famous, no one gives a shit what your personal life is like, keep It informative and about someone or something other than yourself. In fact, the less you talk about yourself, the better. It’s an idea so counter-intuitive that I had to slap myself a few times after reading it. But it’s hard to argue with numbers.

Shockingly enough, I found the people who seemed to do the most good with the medium were the ones who were using those annoying bots that send out links all the time and never really say anything insightful.

Terrifying, I know.

3. Keep Thy Plans Simple, Stupid

Beyond social media you’re going to want to come up with a plan about what you’re going to do that others AREN’T already doing naturally. In fact, you’re going to want to think about that even more than the twitter campaign because you’re going to need to have something to link to people on those tweets you’re going to make on a near constant basis.

Do, however, put thought into the tweets still

The thing is, I learned the hard way that having too many plans is worse than having no plan at all. When I came around to doing the things I planned to do to try to get a little marketing going I found that I got so few of them done properly that I might as well have done nothing. You know what’s sadder than not having a website? Having a website that looks like someone discovered how to build a time machine and went back to learn HTML from a kid in the 90s.

Never forget the story of Dexter Douglas

4. Thou Shalt Know Your Limitations

Speaking of which, also remember that you’re one person. Even if your plans are small they can easily get beyond your ability to do them. I was able to do things such as design my own cover, my own websites and do my own formatting. It saved me a lot of money. But you know what else it did? Stress me out to the point that I was ready to crawl up the walls because I was literally doing everything on my own.

still not as effective as a spider-bite

Honestly, if I’d paid someone to do one of those jobs I would have been happier for it (if poorer). And I know it can be scary to spend money you haven’t made yet. But if you spend it then you’re probably going to get back what you put into it. And really, which is more important, the money or the peace of mind?

…Okay, so peace of mind from having lots of money is the best. But if you’re an indie you don’t have that yet. In fact, if you’re reading this, you probably don’t have that yet.

5. Honor Thy Useful Friends (and possibly the not useful ones)

So remember that “you’re one person” thing before? Well, unless you’re a special case, this is almost a universal truth.

So when you sit down to come up with these well laid plans, it may be time to look at the person sitting next to you and ask them for help. When I first started I had supportive friends chip in their time and effort to help. With their help I had all the confidence in the world. But as they lost interest and I failed to keep them involved, I soon realized that without them I was back to that ball of stress and rage that I didn’t want to be.

A lot of creative types will tell you that making this work requires you to sacrifice your relationships. But the truth of the matter is that if you do sacrifice your relationships you’ll find that you’ve wandered into the deep wilderness without anyone to help. It’s only a matter of time before you’re down a chasm and need to cut off your arm to get free.

There are less painful ways to work with James Franco

6. Thou Shalt Not Be Needy

But, your friends aren’t there to hold your hand. When they do walk away from the project (or run) you’re still going to be left holding the thing. It may be hard for you to accept the notion that you have to do it alone when other people have given up on it, but you will. In the end, regardless of how supportive your friends are, you need to be willing to do it without them if it comes to it.

You should always appreciate everything that anyone does for you. But when they walk away you shouldn’t get discouraged or upset by the fact they’ve left you alone. It was never their project to begin with and they certainly didn’t tell you to go down that deep dark hole. So sometimes you need to be willing to lose the arm.

But then, even if you have all the support in the world…

7. Remember The Release Days, Keep Them Distant

It is absolutely vital that you keep an eye out to see what else is being released at the time that you’re releasing. In fact, you need to keep an eye out for anything that might be anywhere near your genre. Why? Because it’s a terrible thing to be the little fish when a great white happens to be dropped right next to you.

How’d I learn this one you may ask? Well, frankly because my first novel, Shards of Glass, was released in May of 2011. It’s a bit of a genre bender but if you were to punch in search terms and happen to stumble upon it you’d probably find it sitting next to Supernatural Mystery books. So imagine when I realized Charlaine Harris has released a new book every May for the last 13 years, including in 2011.

Why did that matter? Because you don’t want to be a “supernatural mystery” with vampires released in the same month as a bestselling book series literally called “The Southern Vampire Mysteries”.

I got my ass kicked by Sookie

8. Covet Thy Neighbor’s Publicity

This one’s kind of funny on its own. As I was trying to get attention, being told to do it the nice way by people who meant well, there was only one time I could directly connect something I had done to the amount of increased traffic I experienced. It was all thanks to the Kardashians.

I shit you not, I insulted the Kardashian sisters on Twitter in response to their “great news” that they were releasing a “novel” based on “their lives”.

Which was as “real” as everything else about them

I took a swing at them in the public eye and had a few people get actively pissed off at me for doing so. But when the dust cleared I realized I’d made progress by just being a dick to a famous person where everyone else could see.

It’s true, there is no such thing as “bad press” for an author.

Hell, look at what fatwā did for Salman Rushdie

9. Thou Shalt Set No Hopes Before Your Goals

And now, time for serious faces and blunt honesty.

One last cat for good measure, just to brace you for it

You’re going to fail at first. This isn’t to say that you’re bad at what you do or that you can’t do this. Eventually you may even rebound and start climbing the ranks despite stumbling at the start. But you ARE going to fail for a while. And when this happens you’re going to risk burning out, fast and hard.

So here’s a piece of advice that’s straight from the heart and that I needed to learn above all others: When you go into it, set reasonable goals for what you want to accomplish, but don’t pin all of your hopes on those goals succeeding right away. It’s good to dream big and aim high, but when you miss the mark right away it’s best that you remember the difference between goals and dreams. Goals are things you can accomplish, dreams are things you wish for.

10. Remember To Honor Thyself

And because of the 9th, I have to finish on this note. After all that work, the stress and the strain on relationships, you’re going to feel like hell regardless of how well you do. And when you start to struggle you’re going to be an easy target for that burnout I just mentioned. A lot of people, the same ones that mentioned you need to sacrifice your relationships, will tell you that there is no time you can consider “time off”. But you know what? They’re usually not as successful as the people who’ll tell you to take a moment for yourself every once in a while. You need to rest your mind and your body from time to time to be able to take on the challenges ahead of you. JK Rowling is apparently a master of Minesweeper from the time she took off while writing her books.

I forgot this and soon found myself not having fun doing the thing I’d always loved doing. And in the end…

You always need to have a little fun with it.

(And now, with that, I invite you to read both of my books, now available at all major eBook retailers.)