Issue #21

The Underserved Life: A self publishing success story

Content Marketing
9 min read

Would you believe that a small town girl starting with zero blog subscribers sold 1,000 copies of her memoir in the first two weeks of its release?

Only nine months after setting off to build her email list while writing and self-publishing her memoir, this same small town girl hit #1 New Release in over five Amazon categories. And then it remained in the top 10 for multiple categories its entire first month.

And while all this happened, she had two infants under age one and a husband working full-time while in graduate school.

This small town girl is me, Natalie Brenner, and I'm here to tell you about my self publishing success story and how to write your first book.

A self publishing success story
I wrote my first book when I was in third grade. Sure, it was pieces of lined paper ripped out of an old notebook, stapled together, and only about 35 pages long, but it was a book.

From that moment forward, I knew I wanted to be a writer. I dreamed of piecing together stories, crafting together experiences, creating lessons-learned, and inspiring others to live their fullest life.

In high school I started my first blog, where I strung words into poems. These poems were depressing and quite dark, dripping with pain but also hope. Eventually I began dating my now husband and we got married. The blog turned into our documented journeys together sharing wisdom gained and mistakes made.

Secretly, I wanted someone fancy to reach out to me and ask me to write a book. I smiled every time a reader, friend, or mentor asked me when I was going to write a book. Shyly and without confidence, I waved them off, saying I wasn’t good enough or I didn’t have anything that good to share.

But really I did have something to share. We all do… if we want to.

4 steps to self-publish your book

One evening I sat in bed feeling helpless. The story I was living felt important and the things I was learning along the way needed to be shared.

The pain I was walking through and the healing I encountered through simply being honest felt life-changing. I wanted to shout to the world that I found the secret to a full life and I wanted it to be shared through a book.

But my social media platform was minimal. I wouldn’t even call it a platform.

I had a whopping 56 subscribers on my sacred little WordPress blog I had created over five years prior. So to my 300 precious Twitter followers, I asked,

Does anyone have any sort of literary agent connection they could hook me up with?

Luckily, my friend was working for a best-selling author at the time. She messaged me and asked if I would be open to self publishing. I scoffed and half-heartedly heard her out.

Self publishing seemed so silly, so amatuer, so overwhelming. But as her words, tips, and resources settled into my mind over the coming days, I thought, “Maybe, just maybe this is the route I need to begin my author career.”

4 steps to self publish a book- lay the ground workLaying the groundwork

Before I was able to fully dig myself into drafting and ultimately publishing my first book, I needed to grab ahold of and claim my identity as a writer.

Until this point, I had been pretty flaky about calling myself a writer even though I was being paid as a freelance writer. Once I made that mental shift, I began taking myself seriously.

Asking ourselves “why?” about any major adventure is integral to its success. Without knowing our why, we won’t have the motivation needed to push through the hard days (and there will be hard days!).

I wrestled through:

  • Why do I want to write this book?
  • Why does the world need this message?
  • Why will my book be different than what’s already been written?

I then studied the pros and learned from the many authors and creators who have gone before me. Free quality resources are everywhere. I listened to podcasts, read free eBooks, researched all things memoir writing, marketing, and community creating.

4 steps to self publish a book- set a budgetBudget breakdown

Have you seen a self published book that looked self published? Me too.

I didn’t want my book to be unprofessional, which meant I needed to invest all of myself and a chunk of budget into it.

Let me be clear: we had zero extra funds for any sort of “book budget.”

We were living paycheck to paycheck, utilizing the gift of food stamps, my husband was in school, and I was working hard as a photographer and freelance writer. We had two babies…TWO under age one.

After seeking counsel, I set a budget of $3,000.

This was more than our monthly income, but I knew it wouldn’t be all in one chunk. Here is the breakdown of how my budget was spent:

  • Editor — I researched and interviewed a handful of editors. Something I’ve learned as a photographer is someone will always do something cheaper. But cheaper doesn’t mean it’s the right choice. I ended up hiring Ashley Ormon, and have been incredibly thankful for her.
    • Editor (copy editing, developmental editing, proofreading) — $1650
    • Editor for two free eBooks used on website — $300
  • Designer, both interior and jacket — again, I interviewed a handful of designers and landed on two. I was not willing to have a DIY looking book. I chose the designer (Manda Julaine Designs) I had been working with for my brand for my cover, but she had never done an interior so I found Melinda Martin for my interior. Melinda worked so well with the jacket and made the interior cohesive to the exterior.
    • Exterior jacket with social media and stock images — $300
    • Interior formatting + design — $400
  • Online marketing — $300
    • This may be different for each individual and where your main social platform is. But I used some of this budget to promote on Facebook Pages and Instagram ads.
    • I paid to promote my free downloadables as well as my book itself! I spread this out over the months and used it to grow my list as well as promote my book.
  • Website — $250

4 steps to self publish a book- create deadlinesCreate deadlines and meet them

At the end of the day, as a self publishing author, you are the boss of you. You have to create deadlines and meet them.

Personally, I need clear cut ways to process things, so I picked a release date — about nine months out, which is quite rushed — and worked backwards. I also worked with my editor as well as designers to talk about when they needed what done.

Deadlines to pen into your calendar:

Release date!

Mine was September 18, 2017

Book completion — jacket and formatted manuscript

My goal was August 1 — this gave me time to order author copies and give to people to share on their social sites and with their email lists on release day

Manuscript edited + proofread

  • Before a manuscript can be typeset, it must be fully edited. Ask your designer how much time he or she needs.
  • My due date was August 1. My designers needed my manuscript by July 1.
  • My editor and I needed to be finished with my manuscript by July 1.

What deadlines to set as a self publisher

But what about your non-existent platform?

Valid. I revamped my website in January 2017 and lost my sacred 56 subscribers. My release date was nine months away, I had zero subscribers, and only 1,500 social followers.

Since my memoir is about loss and learning the freedom found in grieving, I created a 3,000 word grief guide, Wholeness Despite the Brokenness, as a free downloadable. You can see how this works here, but essentially, anyone can enter their email address and download it for free.

My goal was to make it to 1,000 subscribers by launch weekend– and I did it!

Along the way, I gained a couple thousand people in my social community as well.

4 steps to self publish a book-book launchBook launch and release

While listening to Tim Grahl’s podcast The Book Launch Show, it became very apparent that I needed a book launch plan. I focused on building my online community, primarily through my email list and also through Instagram.

In these spaces, I regularly invited people to a private Facebook Group dedicated to my Book Launch Team which I started approximately six weeks before my release day.

My Facebook group only had 131 members in it, but they were active and on my team to launch this book into the world come release day. So they knew exactly what they were promoting, I uploaded a free copy of This Undeserved Life for anyone in this group to read.

During the few months leading up to release day I also had a three-tier list of influencers I hoped would read and endorse my book, either for the front cover or on their space.

  • The bottom tier was made up of friends and influencers I already had an existing relationship with — people I knew would say yes!
  • The second tier were influencers I had somewhat of a relationship with, but I was not sure they’d say yes.
  • The top tier was made up of influencers I was sure wouldn’t even read my email, but boy would it make my day to have them endorse my book!

I had people from every single tier respond, receive a free copy of my book, and endorse it.

How to self publish a book as a first time authorThis was all woven together as a part of launching This Undeserved Life because I needed other voices to validate what I had written. By the time my book had launched, I had given over 500 free digital copies to people to review, endorse, and share about on their spaces come launch week.

Ready to self publish your book?

If I can find the time, budget, and courage to write a book, so can you. And it can all start with just a few simple steps.

Here are four things you can do today:

  • Tell someone you are a writer
  • Answer these questions in written form:
    • Why do I want to write this book?
    • Why will this book change the world?
    • Why is this book different or unique?
  • Update your website — Make sure you have these pages available at the header:
    • Contact
    • About
    • Blog
    • Also make sure you have an active and working SUBSCRIBE button
  • Begin brainstorming what your downloadable freebie could be!

Make sure it is in tune with your brand, makes sense for your audience, and shares your voice.

Natalie Brenner

Natalie Brenner is a wife, mom of five kids via biological birth, adoption, and foster care. She is a photographer living in Portland, Oregon and the author of #1 new release, This Undeserved Life. She likes her wine red, ice cream served by the pint, and conversations vulnerable. Like you, Natalie is a fierce believer in the impossible and hopes to create safe spaces for every fractured soul. She's addicted to honesty. You can love Jesus or not, go to church or not: she'd love to have coffee with you. Natalie is a bookworm, a speaker, and a lover of fall. Connect with her at and join her grace-filled email community.

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