Self-publishing: A review of online training, groups, and resources
Updated: Mar 28, 2021
A summary of tried-and-true, ethical online resources for independent authors / publishers
It takes planning and effort to get your new book found and showing up in online search results. You may find plenty of vendors hawking their wares to show you how. None of the self-publishing courses I've found will take you by the hand and tell you how best to write your specific book. They'll tell you the models to follow to write a book. Maybe a strategy for publishing it. Then the marketing gets more complex.
When we, as aspiring writers, first start out to satisfy our dreams of writing a book, we may be excited to learn that it's something we can do ourselves: write, edit, easily publish on Amazon, and expect it to sell. We may not be aware of the naïveté of "expecting it to sell" to random readers. My expectation was that a new book would get found by readers, and that it would be purchased, read, and maybe reviewed. Wrong. It takes planning and effort to get your new book found and showing up in Amazon search results unless you're already an established author or have one of the following who will purchase your book and preferably also give it a positive review: (1) social media followers, (2) an email list of fans interested in your work, (3) some other kind of existing fan base.
This is where the Facebook groups and online training courses come in.
If your time or attention span is short, my quick advice is to find Derek Murphy's CreativIndie (note no final "e" on "creativ") https://www.creativindie.com/ website and Dave Chesson's Kindlepreneur website at https://kindlepreneur.com/ . Both Derek and Dave are men of integrity who provide tons of useful indie-author information and fantastic tools for free. If either recommends an online course, it's probably one worth taking, and both have reasonably-priced courses of their own. Derek has a Guerrilla Publishing Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/guerrillapublishing that you can join without taking one of his courses; he has another with free lifetime membership for his paying students.
Some online courses will take you through the process from beginning to a not-exactly-end: from a few guidelines and some cheerleading on writing; through the process of finding editors, cover designers, and so on (usually pointing you in a direction such as fiverr and leaving you to yourself on that path); some tips on publishing an ebook on Amazon (and maybe a print version); and that's about it. Some courses focus on just getting the first draft done. A few teach how to write children's books. Other courses focus on advertising, which is one of the more tricky and hard-to-grasp aspects of self-publishing.
Bryan Cohen frequently offers a free 5-day course on Amazon ads via a Facebook group - and it's an excellent place to start when you're ready to advertise. In my opinion, it's worth learning what you can for free from Derek Murphy and Dave Chesson (website links above), as well as Bryan Cohen. Once you've done that, consider if you still want to take a self-publishing course. If so, then do some solid research, and make sure that the course offering matches what you're looking for. You may want to learn the process of writing and publishing from beginning to end, but may be better off taking multiple courses in incremental steps to get there, rather than go with one that promises you the full moon.
Dave Chesson redesigned his Kindlepreneur website early in 2021. He previously included a comparison of about half a dozen of the online indie-author courses. Had I seen that before signing up for the SPS course (critique provided below), I might have saved a bundle and had better success elsewhere. His updated site provides the opportunity to do customer reviews of listed online courses - I believe the list is still growing.
If you need incentive and support to get your book written, I recommend Joe Bunting's 100 Day Book course, which is part of Joe's The Write Practice here https://thewritepractice.com/. His courses are unique in that you'll need to critique 3 other pieces of writing in the same course group in order to see the critiques that other students provide on your posted work. Another unique feature is that if you post your work each week, not missing more than two weeks over the 100 days, you may receive a partial refund of the course fee. That's as of early 2021, and of course is subject to change. (I think I received mine the day following the evening that I uploaded my last manuscript copy. My experience is that Joe and his team do what they say they will, no hoop-jumping required.) The Write Practice includes other courses, as well. As a student, you get a free year of the normally not-free premium group, in which you can post short stories or a piece at a time of a novel or non-fiction work to receive critiques from other members. (They just changed their platform software at the beginning of 2021, and I'm not certain if the maximum wordcount for postings is currently 5,000 or 10,000 words.)
Do I recommend Joe Bunting's 100 Day Book course? Yes! Normally I think of myself as not needing cheerleading or incentives to get my writing done. Usually, though, I write non-fiction based on a combination of research and personal experience. Or, I write inspired vignettes and short stories that spontaneously occur. Had I not signed up for Joe's 100 Day Book course on a referral from Derek Murphy, I'm certain that my cozy mystery (recently back from a beta reader) still would be unwritten. I thought the course was marvelous. I felt I had to meet the weekly post requirements. I truly enjoyed many of the other authors' pieces. Much of their writing was very good. The atmosphere there is upbeat and positive. This course really focuses just on doing the writing of your draft and then editing it. There are two tracks within the course, and you pick which one you want at or just after signing up: (1) initial writing of your first draft, in which your weekly posts are simply status reports, and (2) editing, in which your weekly posts are your edits of a previously-written draft, generally sequential chapters of your work-in-progress; the whole piece is submitted at the course end. The Write Practice includes other courses, as well as services, that focus on other aspects of writing, editing, and publishing. The intent of the 100 Day Book course is to help you write and edit your book, providing foundation information about how to do that well, and the structured course environment in which to make progress; it does not include how to publish or market it.
Mark Dawson's courses in his Self Publishing Formula school are highly regarded and well-attended. My impression is that authors who are serious about their writing and looking for long-term success can be found there. I've purchased the Self Publishing 101 course and his Ads for Authors course, but haven't yet gone through the coursework for either of them. Not quite ready for the Ads course at the time, I signed up anyway through an offer from Derek Murphy, in which he added much of his own course as an incentive to sign up for Ads for Authors.
Many courses allow you to proceed at your own pace with no time limit on access to course material. However, it's likely advantageous to begin with the group when each course offering begins, which allows students in the class to bounce ideas off one another and learn from responses to one another's posts. Class communication usually is via closed Facebook groups as well as frequent emails from course administrators. Courses I've seen have been offered once or twice a year.
You may come across some folks selling cheap homegrown software to do things you might be expected to do yourself. My experience with those is that they're not quality tested, don't necessarily work well, and the results often are low quality or otherwise not satisfactory. Your time is better spent learning to do it yourself, and your money better left in your pocket.
I've taken a couple of Jane Friedman's one-hour webinars for a cost of $20 or $25 each, and have found those to be worthwhile.
I've read that the majority of indie authors make only $1 a month in royalties.
A not-so-great course experience
What's prompting me to write this article at this particular time is someone's misplaced post in Mark Dawson's Self-Publishing Formula (SPF) Facebook group (which I do recommend) stating that their calls and emails to the "SPS" customer service hadn't been returned over a course of 2 weeks, and they still needed help. It needs to be made clear that the post was intended for the Self-Publishing School (SPS) group, not Mark Dawson's SPF group. The post was made when it was about 11 PM on a Friday night in the UK, where the Self-Publishing Formula group is based. Over the course of several overnight hours, much speculation was made by SPF group members (some of it good-naturedly humorous - it is a group of creative writers, after all) as we bonded over the then-absent poster's plight. Some of the comments revolved around the "SPF" versus "SPS" question. My commented speculation was that the 2-week lack of any response to a problem sounded to me like SPS, not SPF. The ultimate resolution over the course of Saturday while Mark Dawson and his team reached out to the original poster: Mark offered her his Self-Publishing 101 course for free. This was their response to a lost soul who had signed up for a different course sold by a different group, needed help with something, and been abandoned by their course provider.
It wasn't only me.
I had taken the SPS course years before. When it didn't work for me, my efforts to reach out and get the service they had committed to during sign-up also received no response. Since it appeared to be working for some of the other students, I wrote off my experience as a fluke and moved on. What I learned from other authors' comments in the post I just mentioned above, was that it was NOT "just me". One person went so far as to suggest that we in the self-publishing industry should make efforts to prevent such predatory practices as those used by SPS, the Self-Publishing School.
Most online courses for indie authors to learn about indie publishing cost somewhere in the range of $295 to $900. Current cost for Self-Publishing School appears to be around $6,000. Commenters on the aforementioned post said that for prices like that, covers, editing, and some marketing should be included. It is not.
When I took their course several years ago (2016 - 2018 timeframe) it cost about half that. In the sales pitch over the phone, I was told that I would get 8 one-hour consultations with a mentor. After the first half-hour Zoom session, the mentor quit responding. I had been told in the sales pitch that the mentor would read my book and provide suggestions to improve it. He never read it. Reading your manuscript is not actually part of what they provide. The mentor had sent me a questionnaire about my book and author goals, which I had spent about an hour filling out. He never addressed it and appears to have ignored it, so I brought up a couple of the items during our one Zoom session.
I had been led to believe that a community of students and instructors would participate together to make our book "launches" successful and we would do reviews for each others' books. This happened to varying degrees for different authors. The technical aspect of my writing is fairly good, but of several people who signed up to read an advance copy and write a review, none followed through. It did get a nice review later with a re-release. I thought that no one is interested in memoirs. Even people for whom I had provided free proofreading of their advance copies, done reviews, and received profuse thanks proved unsupportive. One such lady told me that my 200-some page book was "too long" and she was "too tired" to read mine after publishing her own. At least she gave me an excuse; most did not.
Some of the authors disappeared from the group after publishing their books. Since only a few months of Facebook group membership were provided for free with the course, after which a fee of about $50/month was added, that's understandable. In general, many writer support groups are free regardless of whether they're open or closed groups. Some are course-members only, but allow students to stay in the group indefinitely at no extra charge.
Some SPS students succeeded in receiving lots of support and reviews. Some even went on to make sufficient income to make independent writing/publishing their career, either directly from their book sales or from associated efforts such as editing the work of others, formatting, publishing for corporations, and so on. These successes are in the minority.
I thought that my online presence must lack charisma. I wrote to the mentor, to SPS support, and finally directly to Chandler, suggesting that they take more steps to ensure that students receive the support they need in order to succeed. I told them that their course, in many instances, tells the student what to do, but not the how to actually get it done. None of these messages received a response.
Self-Publishing School sells their course as a way to write and publish a "bestseller" in 90 days. If you post your progress, questions, and so on, in the SPS course's Facebook group, you may garner support and cheerleading from fellow students. For the most part, responses to your posts are from other students - who may or may not know the "right" answers to your questions. Their social media director is very active and helpful, and if it's still Sean, is one of the course's shining lights. Eric van der Hope, while not an SPS team member as far as I knew, was extremely responsive to beacon calls for help, especially on issues regarding Amazon KDP. You may or may not get fellow-student support when it comes to launching your book. First of all, you can't be guaranteed that your book will be a bestseller, even with the SPS low bar for defining "bestseller".
When online course vendors tell you they'll help you get a bestseller book in a few months, it's likely similar to this:
They'll provide online course material, which usually consists of a mix of articles to read, videos to watch, and lists of recommended resources for book cover design, manuscript editing, formatting, and so on.
They'll cheerlead your writing efforts.
They'll provide a list of tasks to follow.
They'll attempt to get group support for your book launch, which may or may not include active posts of their own.
They'll point you toward formulas to find low-competition categories in which to place your book. This is fine, as long as you pick categories that are truly representative of your book.
You launch your first Kindle ebook on a free Amazon promotion.
Your advance readers presumably will pick up a free copy (after having read the advance copy you provided them) and write a nice review within a day or two.
The free "purchases" and reviews set up your book to be #1 in a low-competition category. The intent is that when your book goes from Amazon's "Free" category to "Paid", its high-rank Free status will translate to an initial "Bestseller" banner in the Paid category for a brief time if you can keep up the sales for a few days. You capture that status with screen shots, which provides evidence for you to call your book a "bestseller". The reality is that your book may take off and do well, or it may tank into obscurity. (My opinion is that it's unethical to place a book about "using one's smartphone for social media" into the "finite math" category. Some fellow students - bless their hearts - were sufficiently bold to suggest it was inappropriate; however, they were ignored.)
The positive: I met a number of indie authors there with whom I keep in contact in other writer groups. These are people who write well, have integrity, are supportive over the long run, and are fine and interesting people. Friends, even though we've never met in person.
Summary of Self-Publishing School:
Did I learn some of what an independent author needs to do to publish a book on Amazon? Yes. But I had already written my book, and had already published three books on Amazon. A determined person can figure out that much from resources for free on the internet.
Did I get what I was sold as part of the course? No.
Did the course set me up to meet my long-term goals as an author? No.
Did it meet my short-term goals? No, not even that. For many, it does appear to meet their immediate goals.
Does it provide ongoing support for graduates of its course? No, there's a monthly charge for membership in their Facebook group. Most online courses provide free lifetime Facebook group membership for their students.
How would I rate the customer service? The sales team is aggressive, and gives the illusion of SPS being responsive. However, their pie-in-the-sky promises may be empty ones. After signup, and certainly toward the end of the course, don't be surprised if, as the lady above, you receive no response whatsoever, even with repeated attempts over weeks, especially if you're reporting a problem or issue.
Overall impression? There are some good people of integrity to be met in the SPS Facebook group. Some even are part of the SPS team. That said, I cannot recommend anyone or any business who ignores a paying customer's requests for assistance. That is especially the case when the sales team has misrepresented what the company actually provides, and when those on the team fail to provide elements they're supposed to.
Based on what I saw in the weekend's comments on an SPS student's post in the SPF Facebook group, it was not just me who had unmet expectations in SPS. It was not just me who was ignored when reaching out to their customer support team. And that is not the way that more reputable organizations such as those mentioned in this article treat those who come to them seeking help.
The bright side:
The great people I met there:
SPS is where I first learned of Dave Chesson, his Kindlepreneur website, and his KDP Rocket software tool, now evolved into Publisher Rocket. When he upgraded KDP Rocket to Publisher Rocket, users were upgraded in a free and easy process. Dave is an upstanding guy who provides lots of information and tools for the independent author for free. Just check his website. https://kindlepreneur.com/
Eric van der Hope responded to calls for help like Batman to Gotham City's Batman beacon. And that analogy was used more than once. Eric's website: http://ericvanderhope.com/
A host of other indie authors who have become friends, even though we meet only online and in Facebook or email.
You will need to find readers to support your work, and encourage them to provide feedback for you as well as reviews for your book. Writer groups consist of other authors trying to write and sell their wares; there is no ready-made crowd of enthusiastic readers waiting to jump on your book's bandwagon, there. For that, try reader groups such as Goodreads, or some of the free/discount ebook sites. Many will tell you that you need to give support to others before asking for favors. If all you do is say, "buy my book," you're likely to get tuned out. Don't contribute to a carnival atmosphere; don't be a carnival barker. Be honest and forthright, and be sensitive and kind in your support of others.
A word of caution: There are some unscrupulous shysters out there, and some touted practices that will get you banned from selling on Amazon, or get your account banned altogether. Read Amazon's terms of service for authors selling on their KDP platform - and avoid anyone proposing practices that Amazon bans. You may not pay for reviews on Amazon - it will get you banned. You may not trade goods for reviews, though you may provide a free copy of your manuscript to someone, hoping that they'll give you a review. Advance reader copies of your book may be given and reviewed, for example, but you must not require a review in return for a free copy. Do your due diligence before selecting courses and resources.