Many first-time publishers and authors are frustrated by this industry that seems to have no rules and no guaranteed formula for publishing success. What works for one book may not work at all for another. However, there are standards in publishing and there is almost always an answer for any problem you’ll encounter along the way (and if not, someone in the industry will invent one—indies are nimble like that). In working with a number of indie publishers and authors, we’ve found that there are a few things that all successful indies do:

1. They dig deep into their niche

How do independent presses stand out in the literary world? They find their niche and become known for it. If a small press is publishing five titles a year, and one is poetry, another is a children’s book, and yet another is a murder mystery, it’ll take a long time to be a recognized publishing house in any of those genres. Focusing your list isn’t going to limit your audience, rather, it will build a devoted customer base. Patagonia Books is a fantastic example of staying true to their audience, publishing books that are of interest to those who also purchase Patagonia gear. 

2. They set up distribution before starting marketing & PR efforts

We’ve found that many new publishers are so focused on the editorial quality and design of their books that they don’t consider how they’re going to sell a book until they’re close to a finished product. Figuring out a sales distributor should be a high priority on your list of to-dos.  

The first question an editor at Publishers Weekly will ask us about a publisher is “who distributes them?” And many media outlets will want to see an Amazon link to your book before they’ll consider covering it. You should have distribution in place well before you reach the stages of marketing and PR. You may not start out with a big name distributor as some distributors have a sales threshold or require a minimum number of books published a year, so start looking through your options now.

3. They offer learning opportunities for their authors

Publishing has a steep learning curve, and the more knowledgeable your authors are about the process, the more successful their books will be (and frankly, the more enjoyable the process will be for all). One advantage indies have over the Big Five is that they’re able to give individualized attention to their authors. We see indies doing things that would never work at a larger publisher. 

She Writes Press hosts a weekend-long retreat for their authors with writing coaches and educational sessions about each step of the publishing process. They also have a private Facebook group for their authors to exchange ideas and share success stories. 

Would your authors be ready for an interview on national TV if The Today Show producers called tomorrow? Not all authors will be willing or able to shell out $1-5,000 for media training, but it might be worth investing in the training for yourself if you are working with several authors. Then you’ll be able to act as a secondary coach, helping your authors prepare sound bites and prep for on-screen interviews.

4. They have an editorial calendar for website and social media content

We know you’re wearing all the hats. To make it easier on yourself, sit down and think about how often it’s realistic for you to create original, quality content for your website and social media. Then establish an organized timeline and plan out what you’re going to write about for the year. 

Like a magazine’s editorial calendar, it only needs to be a general guideline of monthly or weekly themes for blog posts, newsletters and social media posts. Social media should be fluid and “live” but it can help to be ahead of the game. Make sure you’re planning content in advance for World Oceans Day or Mental Health Awareness Month or (for cookbook authors) National Guacamole Day.

5. They read more

Not just books. Stay on top of publishing trends (and media opportunities) by regularly reading industry publications such as IBPA’s Independent, PW Daily and Shelf Awareness. Trust me, it’s worth five to ten minutes of your day.

Also, consuming more news will strengthen your PR efforts (We love The Skimm for daily news updates). The more you understand the media you’re trying to reach, the better you can target your pitches to them. 

Pick 5-10 media outlets you’d like to see your books covered in and read or watch them religiously. Understand what kind of stories they cover and pitch them with a subject line written in the format of their headlines. 

Set up a Google Alert for the topic of the book you’re pitching ( “wildlife conservation” or “paleo” or “bullying prevention”), so you can see which journalists and outlets are covering those topics regularly. Ask your authors to set those up, too, so they can stay on top of what’s happening in the news and can comment promptly.

There are many more pieces to the publishing puzzle, but implementing these few practices will help you stand out in the market.