5 steps to professional self-publishing
Self-publishing is the act of an author independently publishing their own work at their own expense with no connection to a publishing house of any size. It’s big. It’s unregulated. There is no quality control. No gatekeepers. This, of course, is why a lot of people get into it. It is also the reason why there are a lot of shit self-published books. Which in turn is the reason for the stigma. I chose to publish my own work, (if you’re wondering why, click here) and although I am proud of what I have achieved I still feel this sinking mortification in my gut when someone asks who published my books.
But screw the stigma! In the 1950s Theodore Sturgeon had a revelation. He was an American science fiction author who realised that, although science fiction was derided for its low quality, all genres suffered poor work. Thus was born the saying: “90% of everything is crap”. It’s more like 95% in self-publishing, so let’s look at some of the ways to avoid inclusion in this far from exclusive club.
Ok, so this seems rather obvious. In order not to be crap you have to write well. Durr. But weirdly this is often one of the most overlooked steps. I believe story-telling is a genetic sickness that everyone has to a greater or lesser degree (you could call it talent if you like, but it feels more like a disease to me) but regardless of how ‘natural’ you are at it, it’s still a skill that requires practice. Hours and hours of practice. You’ll write lots of terrible things before you learn to write well, but that is how you become a good writer. Don’t neglect the learning phase. Don’t assume that because YOU love your story and your characters that you’ve done them justice.
A beta reader is someone who reads your book before it is a finished product, often at the end of the first draft, or after the first rewrite. They can be a friend or family member, but there is an inherent problem with using people you know. They don’t like to upset you. And unless they are huge readers, reviewers, critics, authors or editors, they aren’t always able to give truly constructive criticism. This is a problem. If you want to be a good author then beta readers don’t exist to stroke your ego. I believe in the brutal rose pruning approach to feedback. No one should ever be nasty, but constructive criticism is FAR more important and worthwhile than any amount of praise. No matter how much someone might like my work, when I’m in the rewriting phase I would much prefer to hear about what didn’t work in detail, rather than what did.
Another good idea is to have someone read your manuscript and make a note whenever they put the book down and why, whether it is to go to the bathroom, to go to sleep, because they needed to go out or whether they suddenly realised the dishes needed doing. A gripping book will stop most readers from wanting to deal with anything in their everyday life, so places where a book is put down are worth looking at in terms of correcting issues in pacing.
Be sure it’s ready!
I have written a blog about this before, (here), but here we go again for emphasis. This one I REALLY cannot stress enough. Everything on this list is important, but this one is the most difficult and most skipped step in the whole process. It is true of traditionally published works too, but generally you have the powers that be to tell you whether you are or are not ready. This step is essentially what gatekeepers exist to patrol.
“If you self-publish a book before it is ready, you are selling your story short, yourself short, and ultimately damaging your reputation. And as a self-publisher you need that reputation.”
So when is a book ready? Most authors (read probably all of us at some point in our writing youth) have finished a first draft and glowed, sure that we just penned the ultimate masterpiece and people have only to read it to fall in love with our wonderful characters and blah blah blah boring boring. I sure did it. The books that went on to become The Vengeance Trilogy were originally written in 2007. When I was eventually ready to publish The Blood of Whisperers it was 2013. (And they weren’t my first finished novels. My first finished novel was 220,000 words long and the most amazing (piece of shit) book ever written. Part of an even shitter 800,000 word trilogy.)
Between 2007 and 2013, The Vengeance Trilogy underwent a massive overhaul, I got lots and lots of writing practice, there was a whole new set of first drafts and so many rewrites of those that I could not count them. And now I have something I can say I am proud of. If I had self-published them in 2007 when I first finished I would be regretting it now. I would have wasted some great characters and a great idea on rubbish.
“If you love your story then don’t throw it out into the world half dressed, work at perfecting your delivery so everyone else can love it like you do. I can guarantee that half the brilliant story you think you’ve written in that first or second draft isn’t on the page. It’s been left behind in your head.”
The key to getting this step right is distance. Whenever you think you’ve completed an amazing book and you’re ready to publish, put it down. Don’t look at it. Start a new project or just take a break, read lots (you should do this anyway if you want to be good at your job). You should keep writing, because only by writing do you learn, but you need to leave that project alone. Give it a good three months before you go back. If you still cannot find fault with it, give it to someone new to read. Not one of your old beta readers, but someone you can trust to be brutally honest. Throw it to a complete stranger or pay for a manuscript assessment, or if you already have a relationship with an editor they might perform this task for you. In a sense, this person is now your gatekeeper. Of course you can choose whether you listen to them or not, but if my editor told me my book wasn’t ready I damn well wouldn’t let it see the light of day.
Get a bloody editor – NOW!
So that editor I was just talking about. I hope you have one of these. And if not, you NEED one. This is not optional. Even if you are a fully trained editor it still isn’t optional. At the very least your book needs to be proofread for mistakes by someone that is not you, because no matter how many times you go over it you’re still likely to miss them. Our brains are just that good at filling in what they know should be there rather than seeing what really is.
Let me stress again – THIS IS NOT OPTIONAL.
If you’re not a professional artist/graphic designer then hire one
Once you’re confident that your story is the best it can be, once it has been beta read and reworked and you’ve bled over perfecting everything that can possibly be perfected, you are going to need a cover. We’ve all heard the saying “Never judge a book by its cover” but who the hell doesn’t?
Advertisers and marketing teams have spent years researching how the human brain responds to different colours and shapes and fonts and words so they can sell us more stuff we don’t need. Technically your book is something we don’t need (not food, water, shelter, warmth etc) so you have to employ the same principles. Don’t assume that the wonderful writing on the inside will win out. It might win a few, but not multitudes.
So unless you are a trained professional designer or artist, don’t think for a moment that you can do this shit for yourself. If you don’t have years’ worth of experience using Adobe photoshop or Indesign or some other comparable program, don’t even think about it. There are hundreds of thousands of books out there all vying for attention, a cover drawn in Microsoft paint isn’t going to cut it. You want it to look as good as the stuff the Big 5 put out, or why would someone bother taking the risk on you?
Covers sell books. In fact if you want to sell books, it’s more important that you have a good cover than that the book is any good. I recently picked up a self-published book with an AWESOME cover. I was really looking forward to it, but in the end I didn’t finish it. It wasn’t terrible, but there were so many technical errors and general wtf are these characters even trying to DO that I just couldn’t waste my time (if you have kids you know you have to be rather more selective about what you read with the limited time you have).
But this book sells well. And it will keep selling well because it has an amazing cover. End of story. Bye bye. See you later.
So that’s my five step plan to not sucking at self-publishing, but even if you decide to go with a publishing company the first 3-4 steps are still relevant. And don’t worry, after completing these steps there is a whole new world of hurt waiting for you, the bit where you actually have to produce your book and get people to buy it. But that is a discussion for another day.