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Five years of training for the self-publishing triathlon

Updated: Mar 31, 2022

Today marks the 5th anniversary of the first time I “pushed the button” on self-publishing. At the time, I didn’t realize I was competing in a triathlon, but over the years, I’ve come to see the process of self-publishing as a multi-skill endurance race that is not for the faint of heart.

Let’s roll back the clock to 2016 to see what I mean.

It was the 4th of July in 2016, and I mentioned to a good friend that I had a kids’ book all written up, but I couldn’t afford an editor. She offered to copy-edit my book, and within a couple of months, it was ready, or so I thought to drop it on I got halfway through the process there and realized,

"Oh wait! I need a cover… and marketing copy…and reviewers…and advertising!”

I soon understood that putting a book out there was a lot more involved than I thought. But I muddled through it, got my listing online, printed some books, and waited for the royalties to roll in … and waited … and waited.

You see, I was treating the whole thing like a software sprint. So I thought, “Well, if I just get it out there, I’ll just iterate, and an ebook is just software, right?”

After a few months of no actual results, I started to look into what went wrong. The issues were many. I got advice from the host of intelligent people now listed in the acknowledgment sections of my books and started what turned into a two-year effort to get a book worth buying. After all that work, the results were better but still weren’t what I wanted or expected.

I joined a couple of different associations, made many contacts, and have now come to realize as I prepare for my 6th book launch that self-publishing success is a triathlon of writing, marketing, and sales.

Swimming to shore – writing the book

When I think about writing a book, that’s some deep water. When I start, I only have a vague notion of where I’ll hit dry land. This event is grueling in the real world because the ocean is working against you. Whether it’s saltwater in your eyes, rolling waves, or the possibility of sharks nipping at your toes, the environment is doing its very best to distract you from reaching the shore. My writing is totally like that. Phone notifications, family interruptions, or just a squirrel in the backyard can pull me out of the flow.

Once I’ve lost my point of reference, I can barely find the next word, and it takes every ounce of willpower to type that next character. Even if the pleasant click of keys on the keyboard continues, the story has likely taken an unexpected turn.

Suddenly, there are sharks..

On the frontier?

No, not

I know...Laser sharks!

No that will never do.

See what I mean?

Keeping on point and landing a completed manuscript on the shore is a mentally grueling task amid the splashing spray and sand of life.

Biking Cross Country – getting to market

The thing about the bike portion of a triathlon is you have a machine to help you along. There are several technicalities in getting the most out of your bike, tire pressure, chain tension, gear ratios, etc. Being successful in the bicycle leg of the competition is more about understanding how to become one with the bike to use its mechanical advantage to its fullest.

As I bring a book to market, there are numerous mechanics at play. Cover art, marketing copy, social media posts, reviews, etc., all require a completely different skill set than the swim to the shore of writing. Much like changing gears on a bike at the wrong time, executing these things incorrectly or out of sync, can cause the whole thing to crash.

Unfortunately, all of these things are areas of expertise in themselves. Getting my cover art, marketing copy, and social media posts for my launch to tell a consistent story to hook curiosity in the book is a complex and nuanced task that takes real expertise to execute. But when all the orchestration is complete, I get a few moments to coast and enjoy the feel of the freshly printed proof copies in my hands.

Distance Running – sales

Sales is the distance run at the end of the triathlon. In my head, I have a vague notion of the finish line. I want to sell so many copies in such and such time frame. But that journey is one foot in front of the other. In the beginning, it was asking friends and family to please buy my book. Those first few steps were agony after all the effort spent getting to this point. Not just for me but my friends and family standing by watching me run this part of the race. I know they felt for me initially, but they weren’t going to carry me to the end of the arbitrary finish line I had in my head. It’s not their race.

But once I got out there and things were moving, there have been times where I hit my stride. I’ve found ways to multiply my efforts by paying for direct sale ads or enlisting true fans to spread the word. But these things take time to be successful. I have to monitor my ad targets to ensure I’m not over budget and continually build goodwill with my brand ambassadors. Sometimes I can almost feel something like the runner’s second wind kicking in.

But then I’ve tried some things along the way that just didn’t work out. Like the time I tried a

“curbside book-signing”

in December,

during a pandemic.

It could have worked…

No, not really.

That was one that was never going to work.

It’s at times like that I’ve had to dig deep to keep putting one foot in front of the other, believing that I can still make it to the finish line.

The Finish Line

For me, the finish line of one triathlon is usually about 90 days after launch. The buzz around the book fades, and for me, it’s time to start training for the next one. While hitting a sales goal is a great feeling of accomplishment, I have to say the better feeling is seeing the fans along the way cheering me on.

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