Since I started writing professionally back in 2010, I’ve learned a lot about publishing. I’ve had a request to share my experiences, so this is going to be a rather lengthy discussion of what I’ve done along the way, both good and bad. If you would like to contact me and ask me more questions about self-publishing, I’m more than happy to help out someone who’s new to the game. If you read through this and want more, find me on Google Plus, and we can talk.
For the time being I offer this as a free service, because I know how hard it is to get going. If you feel like tossing in a few dollars at one of my books at the end as a “tip” because you felt the guidance I’ve provided was useful, I won’t say no. If this turns into a consulting job where I’m flooded with requests for help, it will turn into a “pay what you feel” type of program. Unless I get screwed on that, and it starts feeling like a job. Then I’ll come up with a rate system, but I’d really rather not do that.
After seeing someone call herself the “foremost expert on self-publishing” and then go on to say she can help people find an agent or publisher, I hit my head on my keyboard. That isn’t self-publishing, “foremost expert.” Talk about obvious money-grabs. How many middle-men do you need between you and your readers? (Answer: Zero, although having distribution sites like Amazon and Draft2Digital aren’t so bad.)
So without further ado …
What is Self-Publishing?
To learn more about this, you first need to understand the old way: traditional publishing. This is what most people think of when they hear someone is publishing books. You write a book, and a company pays you for it. It’s a bit more complicated than that.
Yes, you start off writing a book. You shoot it off to agents who will look at it and see if it fits what they think they can sell. No, you can’t go directly to a publisher. The agent is going to take roughly 15% of whatever you make, and you get someone to go to bat for you with the big publishers. If agents don’t think they can push your product (that’s what your book is), they won’t take it. They don’t want to waste their time, because they need to eat, and 15% of $0 doesn’t pay the bills.
If the agent lands you a publisher, an unknown author is looking at a $10,000 payday, roughly. Your instinct might say, “Wow! $10,000 sounds like a lot of money!” Keep these things in mind: Your agent takes their 15% off the top, so you’re down to $8,500. The poverty line in Canada is around $18,000 for a single person (never mind if you have a family to worry about). So you’d need to publish more than two books per year just to live. And you thought writing one book was an accomplishment!
Once you have a publisher, they’ve bought your manuscript and will put a cover on it, edit it, and market it. You’ve done your part. Time to go write another book. Maybe you’ll even get lucky, and the publisher will like you enough that they’ll ask you to write more for them.
For the rest of us, self-publishing is a way to break into an industry that has become exclusive, and risk-averse. Some people write the books and publish them in hopes of building an audience and luring an agent or publishing house to them. Publishers like it if someone’s done all the work for them of creating the book and building an audience. After all, if there’s already a guaranteed market, it’s a no-brainer for them, right?
I don’t understand that mindset, though. If you’ve already done all the work to get to that point, why would you want to then introduce a middleman to take the majority of the profits?
“But I’ve written an amazing book! Surely I’ll catapult to riches!”
No. You might be able to think of a few exceptional cases of those who have gone from rags to riches (Stephen King, J.K. Rowling), but they’re extremely rare exceptions. The average writer slogs through and tries to scrape by. Unless you’re delusional, and think you’ve got the winning ticket, sit back down and let’s talk about what you can really expect.
At the beginning, I had no idea what I was doing. After talking to my buddy Ian about a D&D campaign we’d played together more than ten years earlier, we came to the conclusion that I should write about it. I altered the idea slightly, going for the prequels first. My first campaign was second, chronologically. I didn’t want to write the Strongblade Siblings series first, and then back track to cover the Empire’s Foundation trilogy.
When I finished my first book, A Noble’s Quest, I sent it off to around two dozen agents. While I was waiting, I did some reading and discovered the world of self-publishing. Instead of making 10%, you could sell your book through a retailer directly and get 70%, and keep control over your content. You could put the image you wanted on the cover, keep whatever you’d written without worrying about it getting hacked apart, and not have to give up on your vision. You could even try to go it alone, and set up a store on your own website, but the big perk of using something like Amazon is that there are millions of people looking through their content, so there is a chance that random people will see your work.
Anyway, I heard back from some of the agents (you’ll never hear from all of them), and some of the feedback I received was really positive. Instead of canned replies, I was hearing things like, “I like what I see, and I took it up to my boss, but he said it doesn’t fit what we’re going for at the moment. But please submit to us in the future.” I knew I had something good, I liked what I’d read about self-publishing, so I went for it.
Slowly. I’m a bit cautious by nature, so I did my own cover art (which wasn’t good), and paid an editor who was new to editing novels (she mostly did student papers). It cost roughly $900 for the editing. After getting some positive feedback (and even some reviews!) from people I didn’t know (unbiased), I decided I’d continue with writing and worked on book 2, A Wizard’s Gambit.
But I needed a new cover on book 1. I wasn’t happy with what I’d done, and started scouring the Internet for an artist I liked. There are plenty out there, but I wasn’t seeing anyone whose style fit my vision. Then I stumbled across Harvey Bunda and fell in love with his work. I knew I needed him to do the cover, asked for a quote, and got it back. $500. USD. Gulp.
Enter crowdfunding. I knew what my costs were going to be for the second book, so I set up an Indiegogo campaign to see if I could crowdsource some funds to help cover the expenses. It worked out pretty well, and I raised $1000. That covered developmental editing ($500) and the cover art for A Noble’s Quest. I still needed to pay for the second cover out of pocket, but that was a lot less than everything put together. And my (wife’s) aunt helped by offering to work with me on line editing, which would have driven up the cost of production considerably if I’d had to pay someone else for it. A second Indiegogo campaign covered much of the cost for the third book, A Hero’s Birth.
I’ve learned a lot along the way, and I want to share some of that knowledge with you now. There’s a lot here, and I go into more depth on some of the topics I’ve touched on before. If this helps even one person avoid pitfalls and failure, then I’ll feel pretty good about that!
Lie #1: A writer needs to write every day
I started out writing every now and then, when I had time. There were no time constraints, so I wrote at a relaxed pace. Fortunately, I started writing without reading any of the “advice” posts that flood social media, because otherwise I might have grown discouraged for not feeling like a “real” writer. But the fact is, if you’re writing, you’re a writer. Everyone does it differently. Find what works for you and do it at your own pace. If some egomaniac wants to try to tell you that their way of writing is the right way, tell them to shut up and keep doing your own thing.
When I finished A Noble’s Quest, I wasn’t sure what to do with it. It was around that time I started looking around for advice and began networking with other writers. I wish I would have started sooner. If there’s one thing writers like to do, it’s talk about their writing. You can learn so much from other writers who post daily (in some cases) about what they’re up to, and what step of the writing journey they’re on.
So the first step I took (not necessarily the right first step – I should have gone through my manuscript a couple more times with a critical eye) was to find an editor. My knowledge of grammar and style was nonexistent. I’m still not great, and I know it. But one day I was walking through my building at work and saw a poster up for editing services. She was focusing on student papers, but I thought, “What the hell? I’ll take her e-mail and see if she does novels, too.”
It turns out she hadn’t, but she was interested in getting into novel editing. She offered me a pretty good price, and we got to work. I think the best way to look at editing is as a collaboration. The editor will have ideas, some will work, some won’t. Don’t belittle your editor or get mad at their suggestions. At least, don’t if you want a happy editor who will help you make your book the best it can be! It should be common sense, but be polite and courteous.
We blasted through A Noble’s Quest. It was great to see my book coming together. In the end, I made my own cover art by taking a picture of a sword I own and putting the blade on a purple field. Add some blue text, and I was done… without having looked at any of the numerous style guides that exist. Then I looked at publishing options. Well, that’s not entirely true. I looked at agents. I found a list of agents online, and fired off query letters to a couple dozen of them. While I waited, I started looking into a new idea I hadn’t heard of before – self-publishing.
Lie #2: Traditional publishing is the golden standard
Those from the ivory tower of traditional publishing will try to convince you that you want to be part of their club. It’s an idea that most writers buy into, because that’s the way it was always done. But when I looked into it, I found some compelling reasons to self-publish.
Reason #1: Control
My favourite reason for self-publishing is that I write what I want, and the book looks how I want. I don’t have a publisher telling me that my cover isn’t the “in thing” these days, and force something I don’t like onto the book. They can’t say, “You can’t write this, because X.” My book, my rules (so long as I don’t break any laws). If it’s a matter of taste, it’s my call, and I can’t be fired from my own work because of creative differences.
If I want to run a sale on my books, I can. If I want to make a change to a book and turn out a new edition, I can. If I want to try out merchandizing, I can. If someone wanted to make a movie/TV show from my work, I can talk to them about that. If I want to talk to other writers and fans, I can.
I e-mailed R. A. Salvatore a while ago to see if he would be interested in reading A Noble’s Quest, because he’s a great inspiration to me. He said he doesn’t have time to read anything other than what his publishers put in front of him so he can give a quick endorsement. That’s really sad, I think. I like reading whatever I want, and if one day someone approached me saying I inspired them to write, and asked if I wanted to read it, you bet I’d want to take a look! And the fact that he can’t have his Forgotten Realms books turned into movies because the bosses don’t think they can sell a dark elf as a hero is ridiculous. Writing for hire means he has no control over anything after he sends in the manuscript.
That would drive me crazy.
Reason #2: Leeches
Imagine you had a product that you thought people would like, and someone said, “Well, first you need to contact a bunch of people to see if any of them like it, and if they like it, they’ll approach a manufacturer. And if they can find a manufacturer who likes it, they’ll make it for you, and both middle men will take enormous cuts, leaving you with maybe 10%.” But it’s your ideas that brought it into being, and these leeches want to feed off you, and everyone like you who has an idea they can milk.
True, the traditional publishing houses have marketing teams to get the word out that you’ve written something, but they’re not taking chances on new authors. They are playing it safe, waiting for authors to prove themselves first, then offer to take the author under their wing. Even then, a lot of traditional publishers are expecting authors to come with a ready-made fan base, so they don’t need to market. In most cases, you’re getting editing paid for, and a cover created for you (again, they make it, you get no say – I’ve seen some terrible cover art from publishers that the writers weren’t happy about).
Why would I spend all that time and effort building up my brand, finding an audience for my work, learning the ropes of self-publishing, only to hand over the reins to someone else once I start getting successful? It seems pretty obvious to me that if I can make it to the point that a publishing house takes notice, I don’t need them at all.
Reason #3: Fun
I write when I’m inspired. I have a day job and family to think about, so some nights I’m just too tired to write. The process of writing my stories is enjoyable. Why would I want to take the fun out of it by being forced to write to a publisher’s schedule? I put pressure on myself to bring A Wizard’s Gambit out in a timely manner, because I wanted to. There’s a huge psychological difference between driving yourself to work hard and having someone else breathing down your neck to produce.
Reason #4: Traditional Publishers are losing ground
Indie authors are taking a larger chunk of e-book sales, and you can see that’s coming off the Big Five publishers. This is what happens when an industry as a whole stops taking risks and tries to play it safe. They dry up, and the people who are taking the risks start to see the rewards for their efforts. I’m not saying the Big Five are dead, but they’re not healthy, either, which gets back to my point that they’re not the “gold standard” any more.
What are the pros of self-publishing?
I’ve made a case for not traditional publishing, but we need to look at the positives of self-publishing.
The e-book market has taken off in recent years. With the ease of production and total lack of costs, people are slamming books together in record numbers. Where the traditional publishers used to be the gatekeepers to ensure quality control, self-publishing is full of authors who toss out first drafts for the world to see. It used to be that people would write their first (bad) book, it would get rejected, and it would become a “trunk” novel – it would never see the light of day, tucked safely away. Now those “trunk” novels are clogging the self-publishing world, giving it a bad name.
Okay, that’s not a good thing.
But what is good is that there are a lot of people available out there to help you create a solid book. There are “on the cheap” methods of exchanging favours with others. There are inexpensive artists who can put together a cover for you that should look okay. If you’re really desperate, you can find a local writer’s group that offers cross-critique. A red flag with that is that you’ll be in a group with a bunch of others who probably haven’t made it either, and it might not actually help your writing at all. You might wind up with people who sound like they know what they’re talking about, but they’re blowing hot air.
The step up from that is paying people for their services, and this is where you can make a book that has the potential to stand out. This can cost as much or as little as you want, but you’re going to get what you pay for. If you hire someone to do a $100 cover, don’t expect an $800 piece of artwork. If you find an editor who’s just starting out and offers you a great rate, don’t expect your manuscript to be flawless.
A big driver for the self-publishing market is the ease of publishing. For instance, Smashwords.com offers a step-by-step guide to formatting your e-book. It’s long, but once you’ve gone through it once, you can set up your following manuscripts in advance, so the process isn’t so laborious for future works.
If you want to do paperbacks, you can plug in your e-book version into a site like CreateSpace.com and it can automatically fit your file to a paperback size. Put your cover on it, do some tweaks, and you can order an author’s proof to make sure it looks exactly how you want (I highly recommend ordering the proof – you don’t want to print copies of your book with glaring errors).
The big bonus of print-on-demand services like CreateSpace is you can do a small print run. I’ve heard stories from the past where people would print 500 copies of their book because that was the minimum order, and then would wind up with 450 books in boxes in their garage. I printed off 50 books for my first print run, and when those were gone, I did a smaller run of 32 (because that’s how many they could fit in a box). You’re sinking less money into it at a time, so it isn’t such a huge shock to your bank account.
Once you’re set up with your e-book and print book, keep writing.
I know, you thought I was going to say “market the hell out of your book.” Sadly, that isn’t the best long-term solution. Yes, you will hope to find some readers, but flooding social media with, “Buy my book! + website link” is not going to help you find success. Those pleas irritate potential readers.
If you’re going to market book #1, consider the following:
Make your pitch interesting. Tell your potential audience what your book is called, what genre it is, and a bit about it. A naked “buy my book” isn’t interesting, so no one will assume your writing is any better.
Make yourself interesting. I’ve gotten more readers by talking to people individually than I have by plastering the Internet with ads. If people think you’re funny/smart/geeky/romantic/whatever, people who like those qualities will gravitate toward you and might pick up your book – eventually.
This is not a race. Almost no one finds fame and fortune after putting out their first book. It’s a long-term commitment. I’ve read most writers don’t tend to find a consistent following until they’ve released 4-6 books.
This comic by Jefferson Smith illustrates the point rather nicely.
So yes, while writing your first book is an amazing achievement, it’s just the first step if you’re serious about being a writer. Don’t think you have what it takes to keep going for that many books? Maybe you want to find a different hobby.
From my own experience, when I released my first book, I didn’t sell many copies beyond people I knew. I did sell a few outside my circle of family and friends, and getting positive feedback from people I didn’t know was a great feeling! It’s what inspired me to continue writing.
With the release of my second book, there was a definite increase in sales right out of the gate. I’d learned a lot, made more connections, and I wouldn’t be surprised if people saw the cover art for the book and thought, “Wow, I want to see what this series is about!” The cover art is expensive, but in the long run I think it will be worth it. Am I going to break even on my writing any time soon? No. But good cover art will signal to readers that you’ve put a lot of work into your book, and builds a bit of trust that you’re not going to waste their time with junk writing.
The one thing I’ve heard over and over again is this: Do not spend money on advertising. Advertising is expensive, and it’s usually a losing proposition for indie authors. Think about your own user experience on the Internet. Ads pop up all over the place. How often do you visit them?
For me, that answer is “almost never.” It’s the same for a lot of people. Like I mentioned before, there are so many authors out there fighting to be noticed, and that’s in a sea of countless products all fighting for people’s attention. An ad by an unknown author is going to be seen and forgotten – if it’s seen at all. Even if people click on it, there’s no guarantee they’ll pick up your book once they get to the retail site. They might look at the blurb and think, “That’s not for me.”
Case in point: during my Indiegogo campaign to raise funds for my third book, A Hero’s Birth, I had an ad go crazy. Facebook told me more than 2400 people saw it. I had tons of likes, and +1’s over on Google Plus. It was a hit! But the click through rate to the actual Indiegogo was minimal, and there were no donations made because of it. People obviously liked the image, but not enough to see why it was there, or what I was trying to get help with.
Indiegogo is a fundraising platform where people who are bringing out a product try to raise funds from people to help make the product a reality. In olden times (haha) people without money would have to go to a bank and take out a loan. These days, if you have a compelling product you can go to Kickstarter or Indiegogo and try to raise the money by offering “perks.” Someone who wants to help you can look through a list of things you’re willing to offer in trade for their donation.
For my Indiegogo campaigns, I offered e-books, paperback books, posters, mugs, etc., to anyone who wanted to pitch in. You have to take into consideration the cost of the item and shipping, plus the fact you actually want a bit left over as a donation to create whatever it is you’re making. Even when people appear to make a lot of money through a crowdfunded project, they’re spending a great deal of it bringing out the perks that people picked.
The more established you are, the better the crowdfunding will work. Or if you have an amazing product that everyone wants, you can get a lot of support. If you’re an indie author with your first book … well, best of luck. I didn’t start crowdfunding until my second book, and most of the backers were friends and family. For my third book, I’d started to build up my fan base from the first book, and got a few more backers I wasn’t expecting.
All right, all right, I’m sold on this self-publishing thing. How do I get started?
I’ll start out by saying I hate lists where people tell you the keys to success. They’re selling a lie. My list below is not going to make you a writing superstar, but I hope it will help smooth the process for you.
Here are the steps I recommend:
- Alpha readers
- Developmental editor
- Beta readers
- Line editing
- Proof read
- Keep writing
1) Assume your first draft is going to be pretty bad. It helps, because you won’t get stuck on Chapter 1, going over and over and over it until you hate it and lose all drive to complete the story. Write. Keep going until you’re done. It’s a long process hammering out that first draft, so make sure to celebrate the victory of completing your manuscript!
If you’re not sure about something, look it up. Or ask someone else who might know. It’s not going to pay off to fudge something, because some of your readers will know. If you do fudge something, hopefully someone along the way will call you on it and help you fix it, but you shouldn’t count on that.
Once it’s written, you’ll want to go over it a couple times. Don’t rush it. Fill in bits that you were weak on with the first draft. Flesh out the story, characters, and environments. Watch for overused words and phrases. A thesaurus CAN help, if used properly, but a lot of first-time authors pick impressive sounding words that don’t mean exactly what they want.
2) Once you’re pretty sure it’s good (it’s probably not), find the most brutally honest person you know who has no filters for worrying about your precious feelings. Because, honestly, you don’t want someone who’s just going to tell you it’s great as it is. It’s not. It’s really, really not. Having a cheering section is great, but not during the process of making a good book.
Once you’ve gone through your alpha reader notes, and you’re sure you want to continue to bring the story out, you’re ready to put some money into it. I’m not going to lie, editors are expensive. But I’ve read a few indie books that were unedited, and I had to put them down without finishing them. Unless you’ve done some intensive schooling in writing, you need professional eyes on your work. Even if you have had training in writing, it’s a good idea to have an editor look over it. Do you really want to put out bad books that people can’t finish? They’ll never trust you again, and you can kiss your fledgling writing career goodbye if you’ve got a book on your author list that’s full of bad-to-mediocre reviews. Because Amazon doesn’t let friends and family leave reviews, and if they’re the only ones who would give you a 4- or 5-star review, you’re sunk.
3) The first person I recommend hiring is a developmental editor. These editors will not check your grammar. That’s your line editor, later. The developmental editor makes sure the core of your story makes sense. Did your character change accents? Did they do something that you’ve had to explain away in the story, because it didn’t make sense for them to do it in the first place? Maybe you haven’t transitioned well between scenes, leaving them feeling confused about who you’re even talking about. There are so many places you can go wrong in the creation of the story’s flow, and a developmental editor will happily tell you all the areas you’ve gone astray.
I can’t stress it enough: you know what you mean. Just because you know, doesn’t mean everyone else will. Writing vague descriptions that make it impossible for the reader to imagine what the scenes should look like will only frustrate the people you’re trying to win over. During the editing of my first book, A Noble’s Quest, my editor pointed out a scene that I hadn’t described in enough detail. It was an elaborate meal at a noble’s manor. My editor suggested that the meal needed greater description because eating such fine food would be a novelty to the two poor protagonists.
That said, this is a skill you can hone over time, so you might not need a developmental editor for later books. But for your first couple, it’s a really good idea.
4) Once you’ve gone through the developmental editor notes and made revisions, it’s time to find beta readers. These people need to be exactly like your alpha readers – brutal, honest, and an eye for details.
“But between alpha and beta readers, that’s a lot of potential sales going out the window.”
Yes. But you’re not writing the book for them, are you? Think bigger. You want a book that they, and others, will enjoy. I even send a copy of my finished book out to my early readers, so they have the final copy they helped me create. It’s a nice little “thank you.” A loss of a few dollars in sales is worth writing a better book.
5) Now you’re ready for a line editor. The bones of the story are gleaming, and it’s time to put some meat on them. Again, line editors are pricey, but you’re putting out a quality book at the end. You might not see a return on your investment any time soon, but as you build your audience, they will talk about your books. If they say, “The story was great, and easy to read,” that’s worlds better than, “I think there’s a lot of potential, but I kept stumbling over incorrect syntax.” Even traditionally published books have errors in them, but the trick is to minimize them to the best of your ability.
6) You’ve gone through all the notes that everyone has given you. You’re sick of looking at your book. Maybe put it away for a bit before doing a final proof-read, if you really can’t stand it. Let your mind rest on it for a while so you come at it fresh. Give it to someone else to proof-read, too. There’s bound to be some silly little mistakes that slipped through while you were implementing changes. Maybe a missed space, or you forgot to delete a “not” that changes the meaning of a sentence. When you’re rested, you’ll catch those.
7) You’re sure the book is as good as it will ever be. And screw it if it isn’t. You’re done caring. Get this manuscript away! I’m sure it’s the most wretched piece of literature ever made, and I just don’t care anymore!
I’ve heard some authors feel that way by the end. But with all the polish you’ve put on it, other people just might like it! Of course not everyone will. Has there ever been a book in human history that everyone liked? Nope. Never. You’ll get some 1 and 2-star reviews. It’s pretty much a guarantee. Don’t respond to them.
This is something that’s vital. If you throw a tantrum at someone who didn’t like your writing, you’re inviting the worst of the Internet to come have a field day with your book. Do you want to be that author who melted down? Is that how you want to be known? Reduced to a laughing stock and maybe even a meme? I doubt it. If you want people to take you seriously, don’t respond to reviews.
Or so they say. I’ve broken that rule a couple times, talking about reviews I’ve had, but I don’t go on rants about them. I acknowledge the points made, recognize the limitations of my own writing, thank the person for taking the time to leave an honest review, and go on my way. You don’t want to start a chain of fighting. But thanking people surely can’t be a bad thing, can it? I haven’t had it backfire on me yet.
I know some people say they never read the reviews, so they’re not tempted to respond. I’m not at that point yet. It’s great to see what people think, good or bad. If it’s a negative review, or even a positive one with some qualifiers, it helps me learn where I can do better, so future books will be stronger.
8) Really, the most important thing is to keep writing. I said it earlier, but it’s worth repeating. If you stop and wait for your one lonely book to take off, you’re not going to find success. Readers like to find authors with a list of books, so if they like one, they can bounce to the next. Now that I’ve had good reviews on A Noble’s Quest, I’m hooked. I want to keep writing for the rest of my life. It’s a passion, and I know one day I’ll bring out all the books I can dream up for my world Illuma. It might be a while. I’m not crowdfunding any books after this trilogy, and you might remember I said most authors need 4-6 books to gain a sustainable following. As I get the money, I’ll bring out more. I’m a young-ish father, with young kids, so disposable income isn’t something we have a lot of.
If there’s one thing you should take away, here it is: Writers write (although not all the time, or even every day). Any other advice you hear is fluff. Find what works for you and do it if you love it!
If you want some help finding people who can help you with the cover art and editing parts of self-publishing, feel free to contact me and I’ll put you in touch with them.