This post is going to be a bit rantier than usual, but as I've reflected on my best and my most stressful times as an independent author, I've realized that there were some key activities that stressed me out tremendously--but that I was told were absolutely necessary to "make it big" in what is, let's face it, a completely insane and unpredictable market where success is never guaranteed.
So I've composed this list as an attempt to help my fellow indie authors who may be feeling as stressed and confused as I once was. If anything on this list sticks out to you as something that's causing you a lot of grief, you may want to seriously reexamine how much good it's actually doing you.
And if you skim this list and just think "What a load of rubbish! All of these things work great for me!", read number six and all will be made clear. (Hence the "probably" part of the post title.)
1. Advertise and promote
Perhaps the most counterintuitive one of all, hence why it's first. I've lost so much money paying for online advertising and putting together promotional efforts. My net losses far outweigh the infinitesimal and temporary uptick in sales from advertising. I've of course had the most success in advertising when I've run free ebook campaigns, but I can also tell you that those haven't really led to people being interested in my other books. They just want what they can grab for free, never mind paying five measly dollars for additional quality literature.
It also doesn't help that most people these days are very skeptical of advertising, and also very skeptical of independent publishing, so an advertisement for an indie book is pretty much a recipe for disaster. Honestly, I can't say I blame them--any well-paid copywriter can make anything sound like a must-read, and I've seen critical accolades and awards for some really cringe-y indie titles. In a sea of mediocrity, it's well nigh impossible to convince total strangers of the quality of your work through advertising.
On the other hand, word-of-mouth is just about the best advertising money can't buy. Nothing speaks more to the quality of something than the enthusiasm of the actual consumers. If you can find ways to get people talking about your books, you'll have gained some free, ongoing advertising that has the added benefit of being sincere and trustworthy.
My best advice for doing this is to find ways to engage with a potential reader base that allow them to understand what your book is about on a first-hand basis. Ad boxes and word limits can't compare to a meaningful interview with the author or partnering up with a relevant institution for an event. I can safely say the most fun I ever had promoting my work was the event I did with the Sternberg Museum of Natural History a few years back. It may not have done wonders for book sales, but I personally had a blast and got to meet and collab with real live paleontologists, and now I feel like I've got friends at the Sternberg.
2. Network with other indie authors
I'll try my best to be diplomatic here, and I'm not meaning to hurt feelings, but hobnobbing with other indie authors was just too stressful for me, to the point where I don't recommend it unless you are really, really extraverted.
In my eyes, the biggest problem with networking with other indie authors is that in theory, there should be a "you-scratch-my-back-I'll-scratch-yours" sort of community mentality going on... but in practice, what this means is that if you're not careful, you'll find yourself managing other authors' careers as well as your own, trying to juggle everyone's business interests at once. And real problems arise when the other authors don't reciprocate. Things can get unbalanced really quickly, and in the worst case that can lead to drama.
In addition, networking with other indie authors can be somewhat counterproductive because, at the risk of sounding cynical, no matter how kind or giving they are (or you are), at the end of the day, they are your competition. Gaining recognition for their own work is always at the back of their mind, and let's face it, at the back of yours too. Authors struggling to find their audience will always have an agenda, and no one wants to see another author's work succeed at the cost of their own. I've even heard of real scenarios where particularly charismatic authors have convinced other authors to join the first author's marketing team, promising it will help the other authors' business, when in reality it's all about the first author's work.
I'm not claiming you should never be friends with, or help out, other indie authors. But be very careful and judicious about how much you decide to invest in networking with them. I've had better success networking with non-authors, because those are the kinds of people who tend to be genuinely excited about my books, not just pretending to be excited while waiting their turn to get to talk up their work.
This goes for writing groups, too. If you've found a writing group where you're actually all friends, get along well, and love each other's work, that is awesome. But there are too many writing groups out there whose members are barely interested in each other, much less their writing, and whose meetings consist of sitting around taking turns trying to sound superior, and trying to make the other members into their personal marketing team. I've been in more than one of those groups. It's not fun and not worth anybody's time.
3. Have beta readers
I've tried having beta readers, and I've found it generally problematic and not worth the effort for multiple reasons.
"Too many cooks spoil the pot" really applies here. If you are an artist worth your salt, and not just churning out same-y throwaway genre reads (sorry not sorry, more on that in point five), you have a unique creative vision for your manuscript and there is no point in letting a bunch of other people tell you what they want it to be. They can go write their own book that has exactly what they like in it, but your book came from your brain, your interests, and the messages you wanted to express, and you owe it to your creative integrity to keep it that way.
Of course I'm not talking about real editing here--it's very important to have an informed editor or two go over your manuscript and help you make sure you're telling your story in the best way possible. But the point is that it's your story, and mere differences of opinion or taste from beta readers aren't helpful. Nobody really has the right to tell you what to write, not even a publisher. Don't throw away the meaningfulness and cohesiveness of a manuscript by turning it into a mélange of what everyone else seems to want, because you'll end up pleasing no one and least of all yourself. And honestly, they should just be grateful you went through all the time and effort to write a book, whether or not it hits every right note with them.
Plus - and this is especially true if your reader base is extremely small - every beta reader you give a manuscript to is one less person who will likely buy the finished book. That can be bad for business not just on a monetary level, but because less book sales mean less movement up the genre rankings on places like the Kindle bookstore, meaning your title has less chance of being noticed by random browsers.
In addition, the fact that ideas are not copyrightable makes me rather uncomfortable with giving an unpublished manuscript to anyone I don't fully trust. I have heard of at least one real instance where someone gave a manuscript to someone else to beta read, and before that manuscript even went to print, the beta reader had published their own extremely similar novel. Keep your ideas safe in this crazy world. (I feel like I'm generally safe posting concept art and information on upcoming novels on my blog, because that information is time-stamped.)
4. Read reviews
I used to take reviews, from both readers and critics, very seriously. I would scour them for information I could use to see what was and wasn't working with a book. Of course reading a favorable review boosted my self-esteem, but an unfavorable review could deflate it right back down again. It was an emotional roller coaster, and finally I had to get off because I was getting sick.
I've come to realize that reviews don't actually help authors, because everybody has their own unique opinion about a book. Reviews can also be highly variable based on the reviewer's tastes and expectations, and may have very little to do with the actual quality of the book, especially if the reviewer isn't on board with the author's vision. For example, once I got a somewhat critical review of Pixeldust where the reviewer took issue with the dialogue being too "juvenile", by which they seem to have meant that there isn't any swearing. This was a deliberate decision on my part, because I think foul language is dumb and has no place in media, so you won't find it in anything I make.
Also, reading reviews is a bit of a moot point, because if you've already published a book, that implies that you consider it a finished, polished product, so there's no use analyzing what people think could be improved about it. It's the job of the editors to help you make your manuscript the best it can be, and then you can just let your book fly and move on.
Not to mention you can save yourself a lot of time and energy by not letting yourself get emotionally enmeshed in other people's opinions of your writing, or allowing your confidence as a writer depend on what reviewers think of your work. If you and your editors feel it's fit to publish, you have nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, you should pat yourself on the back and take yourself out to ice cream to celebrate doing something that most people never even accomplish.
Finally, remember that on the Internet, a startling number of people just love being negative, but that's their problem and you have better things to do with your time than pay attention to them. Writing should be fun, so keep yourself in a safe space that allows you to truly enjoy your work.
5. Follow trends
Just as every human on the planet is unique, so is their writing. Throughout the history of literature, the most impactful and enjoyable books have been the ones with unique things to say--the books that start trends, not follow them.
Do a quick mental exercise and list how many of your favorite books were trendsetters, genre-definers or -defiers, or otherwise stood alone in their overall genre or era. Now list how many of your favorite books followed the trends set by the books in the first list. I don't think there will be many books in that second list.
Books that set out to ride the wave of current trends are sort of the literary and intellectual equivalent to fast food meals. They're readily available and temporarily satisfying, but utterly forgettable, except for the ones that kept you awake with indigestion. Books that set out to do their own thing, and don't care about what everyone else is doing or what's selling, are like a home-cooked meal by your grandma--prepared with love and care, rich and soul-filling, and capable of making happy memories that last a lifetime.
Writers, choose quality over quantity. You'll be glad you did. God gave you your unique talents, and you worked long and hard to develop those talents, to create meaningful things to feed people's brains. Knowing you created something that positively impacted lives feels so much better than temporarily riding the coattails of someone else's genius.
6. Get advice online
I saved this one for last both for the irony factor, and because I wanted to end on an important note. The indie writing industry has really exploded over the last decade or so, now that indie publishing is so easily accessible. This has obviously also led to an increase in online articles and yes, even indie books themselves, about how to become a better indie author and writer in general.
But - and I hope this goes without saying - you should not trust everything you see on the Internet. The Internet is a somewhat useful but mostly terrifying place where anyone can say anything. Reading something on a blog, hearing it on a podcast, or viewing it on YouTube does not make it true, legitimate, or vetted in any way. Even the sleekest-looking writing-advice website could have been cobbled together in a day by a group of underqualified wannabes looking for some ad revenue--or a sneaky way to advertise their own books. (Yes, I have visited writing websites where every advice article ends with a promo for the website owner's books, which made me wonder about their true intent.)
I have read some truly awful and unhelpful writing and career advice online, ranging from never describing characters' eye colors (what???) to repeatedly DMing well-known authors on social media to try to get them to post about your book (a fantastic way to make other authors hate you) to taking your novel idea and stretching it out into as long a series as possible, not only because then you can technically sell more books, but because you can offer the first book for free and make the reader feel like they have to know how it ends so they'll impulse-buy the other books (they forgot to mention this one will require abandoning all sense of ethics and decency).
My best advice to indie writers is to completely ignore all the random sketchy advice floating around the Internet. Not only is most of it just plain incorrect, but the last thing you want is to become so concerned about following what Jane Blogwriter Doe #347 says about developing cat characters, or what font you should be using for your page numbers, that you forget to write what you like and have fun with it. If you're looking to improve your writing, read information and advice from your favorite successful authors, have a professional editor look at your work, and/or take classes from a qualified source (such as workshops by aforementioned authors or college courses).
And yes, I am fully aware that this is advice from the Internet, and I totally encourage you to examine it critically and don't take what I'm saying for granted. Does everybody have their opinions when it comes to writing? Sure. Does that mean all of those opinions should be taken as fact and standard for everyone else? Absolutely not.
As I said in the beginning, that's why if any of these items are actually working for you, that's great, and feel free to ignore my advice based on my personality and my experiences. But I'm also aware that these six items can be major stress points for authors, so I'm giving all of you permission to let them go if you need to. Make sure to give yourself permission, too, so it's not just a rando on the Internet saying that. :)
Here's to happier, healthier writing.