Left to right – Guest Jackie Goldman at the Detroit Book City Holiday Book Festival held in December of 2021 with author, Deborah Walker, whose pen name is Nova Wallace. Her books are pictured to the right.
By Deborah M. Walker
LANSING, MICHIGAN – The number of African American indie authors is rising. According to teleread.org, African Americans sell 71% of fiction written by indie authors. As the traditional publication route may seem impossible for many authors, especially African American writers, self-publishing has become a way for writers of color to publish their work and break into the literary industry. Even though self-publishing companies are more accessible than ever to find, some novice writers still have questions about the process.
As an indie author, I have decided to share some valuable self-publishing information from myself and other published authors on how to break into the book publishing industry and even find success as an indie author.
Choose the right topic
Becoming an indie author is as simple as writing up a story and paying to have it published. Yes, it is somewhat more complex than that, but becoming a self-published author in 2022 boils down to how much money an author is willing to spend. However, publishing high-quality, industry-competitive literature ready for the commercial writing market is a different story.
Before I detail the strategy for writing a million-dollar book, I will contend that there is none. It is impossible to tell which book will flop and which book will go on to sell millions. I will advise that the best way to help improve book sales is to write on a popular and exciting topic that is of interest to the general public.
According to goinswriter.com, “To be a successful author, you can’t just write any old book. You have to write a book that is worth selling.”
The best way to sell a book is to write about a topic people care about. Landis Lain, the author of 3 novels, said she wanted to write stories that depicted African Americans in various situations. For example, she explained that her book “Daddy’s Baby” highlights teenage pregnancy, but from the teenage father’s perspective.
“We always hear about the baby momma, but we rarely hear about the father who is trying to step up, but he doesn’t have the tools to do so,” said Lain.
Lain said she likes to write stories affecting young people. She explained that as a writing professor at Lansing Community College, she could connect with her students and communicate with them through writing. She has also written on other topics affecting people, such as suicidal thoughts, which she writes about in her fictional novel “Butterfly Arising.”
Writing on topics that affect people is a great strategy when selling books. When I wrote my second novel, “Bipolar Bears,” I precisely wanted to write about African American women and mental illness. When I did my research, I found there was a lot of interest in the topic, and I felt that was a solid angle to use when selling books.
Even though I had personal experience with mental illness, I felt it was insufficient to sell books on that topic alone. I decided to market my book as fiction and create a storyline that dealt with bipolar disorder and other issues affecting young African American women. That decision helped me develop a marketing strategy that continues to earn book sales today.
Part of my marketing strategy is to attend book signing events. Recently, I attended the Detroit Book City’s Holiday Book Festival in December of 2021, where I met indie author Bruce C. Ford. He said he did not write his book “A Tree Fell: Its Roots Survived” to sell to the general public. Ford said his book is still relevant to readers because it is about preserving Black history, although it is not available for mainstream publicity.
“What I’ve found is that [my book] has a market value, but there is no market for Black authors who self publish. That’s why the venue we were at was so important,” said Ford.
During the five-hour event, visitors at the Holiday Book Festival frequented Ford’s table, and he was able to sell all of his books. Readers could learn more about Black history by delving into the roots of an otherwise unknown Black family, whose history has been preserved and documented in a book. Writing about his family’s history turned out to be an innate book-selling strategy for Ford.
Lain said she was surprised to see how difficult it was to break into writing. Lain acknowledges the path to writing is unclear and does not always lead to success. Even with a winning topic, it is always uncertain what books will become bestsellers and which authors will disappear from the shelves.
“You don’t know what they are going to love or what they are not going to love. So you just keep writing and writing until someone says yes,” informed Lain.
The need for an editor
Mistakes can throw a reader off and kill the quality of the work. Producing error-free, grammatically correct material is essential to help ensure the novel is a good one.
Revisions are part of the writing process, explained Lain. “There is a lot of work in writing, rewriting, editing, and submitting to agents…” she said.
Even though editing a book can be a grueling task, it is crucial. Ford said it is noticeable when an author has not edited the book, especially when they miss the small details.
“The place where we were (Holiday Book Festival), there were several authors that may have 200 page long books and not a page number on anything,” Ford informed.
It can be easy to overlook certain things in the excitement of publishing a book, but remember, the reader will catch any mistakes. So with that said, take your time and edit. If a mistake is discovered by a reader, do not be discouraged, just take notes and make sure the second printing of the book is edited.
I do understand how difficult it is to edit an entire book. For that reason, hiring a professional editor is always recommended. However, professional editing services can cost hundreds and even thousands of dollars.
Freelance website platforms, such as upwork.com, make it easy for writers to hire freelance editors to read and edit manuscripts, and the writer sets the price. Also, many self-publishing companies will offer editing services for a fee. I will caution against trusting these companies not to make a mistake.
With my first novel, “Finally Unrestricted,” I paid thousands for editing and proofreading services, and there were still mistakes in the final product. However, it was still a lot better than if I had not had any professional editing services.
Finding the right publisher
Once the final copy is polished, the next step is to publish it. Finding the right publisher can be tricky. There are a lot of publishing houses out there that offer success, but the price of the package and the services they offer can greatly differ. The best way to find the right publisher is first to decide what the main goal is. Is the book for friends and family only, or for commercial marketing and substantial sales?
Lain said she published two of her novels, “Butterfly Arising” and “Daddy’s Baby,” through Brown Girls Books (BGB), which is a boutique publisher. That means BGB is not a self-publishing agency. Unlike self-publishing companies, authors do not have to pay them to have their book published. Lain said she did not need an agent.
“I just submitted to the publishing company one day, and they chose my book, and I worked with them, and they published it,” said Lain.
When Lain published her novel “Corrective Madness,” a creative non-fiction story about her time working in the prison system, she went the self-publishing route and paid to have the book published. Lain explained she went through lulu.com. Even though she was in charge of everything, including editing, designing, layout, etc., all she paid for was the cost of printing the books.
The website lulu.com is a print-on-demand (POD) company. When the book order gets placed, they print the book and send it to the buyer. Most traditional companies may print many books and then hold them in a distribution warehouse until needed.
Ford published his book after taking a self-publishing class. After taking the course, his self-published book was ready to be printed. Ford said the book had to be laid out and formatted correctly to prepare for printing. The front and back covers, as well as the spine, had to be designed to perfection. After deciding on a title, the size of the book, and picture inserts (inside photographs), a company called 48 Hour Books printed his books for him. As with any POD business, he had to pay for the books he ordered.
The good and bad thing about POD companies is that once the author purchases the books, they can sell them for any amount they want. However, the POD controls how much the author pays for the book.
Over the years, the cost of printing my self-published books with iuniverse.com has risen. I am now paying double the price to publish my books. However, with the pandemic still in progress, I have decided to lower the cost of my book at signings to make them more affordable to the public. However, doing so means a financial loss for me.
Roland Luiz, who writes under the pen name, John Doe, an indie author, published his book “Dead or Alive: The Mystery of Tupac Shakur” in 2004. Often Doe felt as if he was being taken advantage of by the publishing company. He said that paying for the cost of books plus shipping can be a financial burden for authors.
Doe explained that he spent $5,000-$10,000 to have his book published, and even though he is still selling copies of his book today, almost two decades after it was published, he said it was difficult to recoup his investment. Doe claimed he invested all the money and effort into his project, and the publisher, Author House, made the most money from his actions.
“Make sure you find the right publisher, they are making money off of authors right now, and we’re not getting paid. My publisher keeps calling me asking me to write another book. I told them no if they won’t front the cost. I’m paying seven to nine dollars a piece for a hundred books. I’m only making a few dollars when I sell them. The publishing company is making all the money,” said Doe.
As Doe explained, many PODs offer a more significant discount when the author orders more books. The deal allows authors to purchase many books for less per book than they are currently paying. However, larger orders require more of a monetary investment. That is why it is vital to research the self-publishing company to find out how much of the printing costs are upfront. And remember, the price can always change at the PODs discretion. For example, iuniverse.com doubled the cost of printing my books because they indicated the cost of paper has increased dramatically.
Marketing and advertising
Once published and printed, the final step is to get the book into the hands of as many readers as possible. Now marketing, advertising, and sales experience come into play. Authors cannot survive when only selling to friends and family. I advise you to begin writing a list of agencies, instructors, and others outside of your friends and family circle to market your book. It will be disappointing if you do not get honest reviews from others before purchasing too many books.
“If people don’t know about you, they are not going to buy your book. To get your name out there, you have to get chosen by a publishing company that is going to do some of the marketing for you, or you have to market yourself,” explained Lain.
Ford said the key to getting public attention for a book is to get it into as many libraries as possible. Twelve libraries across the nation shelve his books. Having a background in the genre of his book has also helped Ford to find success as an indie author. He was the past Vice President of the Fred Hart Williams Genealogical Society in Detroit, MI, and currently serves as an educator and tour guide at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit.
Although Ford said his book was written to preserve his family history and not fame or fortune, at the Holiday Book Festival, he was able to sell all of his books. I believe this is because currently many African American families are interested in genealogy and preserving their family’s history.
For example, Ford said oftentimes African American families do not pass down their history because it can be a dark story because of slavery. He said he learned his history by listening to his great-grandmother and grandmother tell stories about the elders in his family tree.
“Studying successful books and their marketing is the best way to learn about the subject. Often authors who are successful, who have published, will publish their marketing plan,” Lain informed.
If the author does not have the time or knowledge to invest in their work, it is best to hire someone to build a marketing and advertising campaign. The author can also learn how to do it independently. I have spent over ten years researching different marketing and advertising strategies that work, and many are out there.
When I began as a writer, I sought out the advice of a well-known, best-selling author Eric Jerome Dickey. He came to Lansing to accept an award, and I got a chance to ask him how he broke into the industry. One of his helpful tips was to attend book conventions. Taking his advice is how I came to be a vendor at the Holiday Book Festival.
In addition to book fairs, I rent kiosks at malls across America and sell my books directly to the public. When doing this, I contact media outlets in that city and let them know I am having a signing.
I had an elderly couple come to see me at a vendor show in Grand Rapids, MI, because they had read an article on me being a teenage mother, and now I was an acclaimed author, and they wanted to meet me in person. Contacting media before a book signing is a great way to advertise and market books. Make sure that you send a press release with a photo and a copy of the book cover. Do as much work as possible, including sending some of your reviews.
Remember to stay positive
I have learned over the years in book publishing to believe in myself and know that I have what it takes to be successful as an indie author. Pitching a book to a potential buyer can be challenging for writing. Confidence in the material and in myself help, but I understand the key to happiness as an author is to have realistic expectations. I talk to everyone that I possibly can about my work.
“It doesn’t matter if you get published indie or traditionally. It’s a hustle. You have to push yourself and be ready to invest in yourself, and it’s a tough field to do that in,” said Lain.
Ford said it is tough for African American indie authors to sell many copies because few mainstream outlets cater to African American writers.
“For the most part, mainstream book stores will not show Black [indie] artists’ books. We use Amazon, but Amazon does not advertise it, they just list it,” said Ford.
I agree with Ford. It is nearly impossible to get significant bookstores signings for indie authors. However, I was able to have my books stocked on the shelves of Barnes & Noble in several major cities, including Nashville and Atlanta. However, my book was classified as returnable, a requirement for shelving in major bookstores. Returnable means the books can be ordered by the bookstore and can be returned to the self-publishing company if they do not sell.
Lain said she has a full-time job as an attorney and writes because it is her first passion. She said she would continue to write regardless of the number of book sales she achieves.
“It’s a labor of love and hopefully, one day, I’ll make money at it,” Lain said.
Support indie authors by purchasing a book
Although Ford’s book, “A Tree Fell: Its Roots Survived,” is not for sale at any online or brick-and-mortar retailers, it can be purchased in Detroit, MI at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. It can also be found in twelve libraries in the United States including, the Thomas Jefferson Reading Room in Washington D.C. and the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, IN, to name a few. Also, stopping by the Library of Michigan in Lansing, MI, is another way to read Ford’s book.
Doe’s novel “Dead or Alive? The Mystery of Tupac Shakur: Volume 1 The Alive Theories” can be found on Amazon.com, ebay.com, and other online retailers.
To find out more about Lain or her books “Butterfly Arising,” “Daddy’s Baby,” or “Corrective Madness,” or to purchase a copy of one of her novels, go to Amazon.com, Goodreads.com, and many other retailers.
My books “Finally Unrestricted” and “Bipolar Bears” can be found at Walmart.com, barnesandnoble.com, Amazon.com, and many other online retailers under the pen name Nova Wallace.