Updated April 2011
Wow, what a difference nine months makes! I wrote my first “For Writers” post in July 2010 and I basically answered the “How do I get published?” question by answering the “How do I find an agent?” question. I barely mentioned self-publishing. Since I wrote that post, I’ve become a successful self-published author and I now have lots of opinions about self-publishing. I also get many emails from other writers considering self-publishing and asking for advice. Rather than continue to respond individually, I’ve decided to share everything I know here.
Where to Start
Starting out on the self-publishing journey can be overwhelming. You’re a writer. You know how to write. You don’t know anything about being a publisher. What you want to do is gather as much information about the process as you can. This post is a good place to start, but there are many others. One such place is Kindle Boards. This is a forum which, despite the name, is not hosted by Amazon, but where many self-published authors congregate (specifically in the Writer’s Café section). Sign up (it’s free) and join the conversation. You can glean a ton of information just from reading the posts. (Links to this site, and all the others I mention, will be posted below.) It’s also a good place to find listings and recommendations for editors, cover designers, formatters, and other resources you’re going to need if you choose to self-publish. And if you’re not already reading Joe Konrath’s blog, you should be reading that too.
The Four Must Haves
The Four Things You Must Have Before You Even Consider Self-Publishing:
I first read about these four must-haves for self-publishing on Joe Konrath’s blog. Below is my spin on his “rules.”
1. A Good Book
This is the most important of the four. If your book sucks, whatever else you do won’t matter. If your response to that is Well, my mother/father/sister/brother/spouse/friend thinks it’s not only a good book, but possibly the best book they’ve ever read, you’re in trouble. You need feedback from objective readers before you even consider self-publishing. No one can be objective about their own work.
Where do I find these objective readers? Critique groups, writing classes, on the street, it doesn’t really matter where you find them, the point is you must find someone, preferably multiple people, to give you honest feedback.
Isn’t all critiquing subjective? Yes, but not all elements of good writing are subjective. Spelling, for instance, is not subjective. You either spelled the word right, or you didn’t.
What about Canadian, British, or Australian spelling? Yes, other countries spell words differently than we do in the U.S., and some of the grammar rules are different too. While readers in other countries appear to be accepting of these differences, many U.S. readers are not. If you’re going to market your book to U.S. readers (which is currently the biggest e-reading market) while using the spelling and grammar rules of another country, you should definitely highlight that fact in your product description. And even if you do warn readers that your book contains non-American spelling and grammar, you still need to be prepared for the inevitable bad reviews citing your many typos and poor editing. Unfair? Yes, but reality.
So as long as I follow U.S. spelling and grammar rules, I’m set? Not even close. Spelling and grammar fall under the rubric of copy editing. Your book needs to be edited for story structure and flow as well. And yes, this is subjective. Even brilliant books will have negative reviews. But the more honest feedback you get (even if it is subjective), the better off you’ll be. Not everyone will like your book. But if multiple people are pointing out the same flaw, then you’d be wise to take a second look.
Do I need to hire an editor? I think it’s a good idea. Maybe you can get away with beta readers for copyediting (although even that can be dicey), but most casual readers aren’t good editors. They may be able to tell you something isn’t working, but they usually can’t articulate why it isn’t working or tell you how to fix it.
Remember, just because you can publish your first draft, doesn’t mean you should publish your first draft. Under the traditional publishing system, writers spent years honing their craft. Although the rise of e-books has made self-publishing much easier than it used to be, the writing, or at least good writing, isn’t any easier. If you publish crap it won’t sell and you’ll be demoralized. Take the time to hone your craft and write a good book.
2. A Good Cover
We all know we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Guess what? We all do. Have you ever searched for a book on Amazon? If so, you know that what you’re searching is thumbnails of book covers. If you have a cover that looks like you slapped it together yourself in five minutes with Photoshop, potential readers won’t click on it and they’ll never discover your compelling product description and your awe-inspiring prose.
Some people have a natural talent for graphic design. If you’re one of those people, by all means design your own covers. Some people are merely friends with those naturally talented people. If you fall into that group and you can talk them into designing your cover for you, consider yourself lucky. But if you don’t fall into either of those categories, you need to hire a cover designer.
Remember, nothing screams “amateur” louder than a bad cover.
3. A Good Description
The first thing potential readers will see when they click on your professional looking book cover is your product description. This isn’t meant to be a synopsis of your novel. It’s meant to entice the reader to want to read more. I suggest reading the product descriptions for successful books by non-establishment authors (Nora Roberts’s, James Patterson’s, and John Grisham’s books sell because their name is on the cover, not because of the product description) to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t.
4. A Relatively Low Price
This is a hot topic among self-published authors. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a hot topic inside traditional publishing houses too. In order to qualify for the 70% royalty at Amazon and the 65% royalty at Barnes & Noble your book must be priced between $2.99 and $9.99. Using Amazon as an example, if your book is priced $2.99, you will earn approximately $2 per book (they deduct a few cents from each sale as a delivery fee). If you price your book at 99-cents, your royalty will be reduced to 35% at Amazon and 40% at Barnes & Noble. For the mathematically challenged, that means you will need to sell six times as many books at the 99-cent price as you would at the $2.99 price to earn the same money. That’s a lot of books.
For some authors, pricing their book at 99-cents, especially if they are a new author and/or it’s the first book in a series, has proven to be a very successful strategy. But other authors have tried it and, although they may have sold more books, they didn’t sell six times more books, which is what you need to sell in order to earn the same royalties as a $2.99 book.
Pricing is one area where most authors experiment to find what works for them and each individual book. Different books sell better at different price points, and it’s not always the lowest price point. Like most things in publishing, it’s a mystery.
Keep Your Expectations in Check
If you’re at all tuned in to the publishing world, you’ve probably heard of Amanda Hocking. She’s the uber-successful self-published author who parlayed that success into a $2 million book deal with St. Martin’s Press. Because of her and a few others, many would-be-authors see self-publishing as the latest get rich quick scheme. It’s not. The vast majority of traditionally published authors don’t earn enough money from their writing to quit the day job. Although the royalty rates in self-publishing are much higher than the royalty rates in traditional publishing, even most self-published authors don’t earn enough money from their writing to quit the day job.
The unfortunate truth is that very few writers will earn enough money from their writing to support themselves and their families. Self-publishing hasn’t changed that. In other words, don’t quit the day job.
One of the benefits of going the traditional route is that it affords entre into professional writer organizations where newbies can learn the ins and outs of being a “professional author.” It’s more than how to handle a disagreement with your agent, and what one can legitimately deduct as a business expense. It’s also how to conduct yourself in the public sphere. Some people instinctively know this. Many do not. So here are a few tips:
- Do NOT publicly respond to a bad review. No matter how brilliant your book is, you will eventually get a bad review. It’s inevitable. And unless you’re made of stone, when you read it you will likely be either upset, angry, or both. Your first instinct will be to type up a scathing response. STEP AWAY FROM THE KEYBOARD. Immediately. Call your best friend, eat lots of chocolate, open a bottle of wine, go pummel a punching bag. Whatever your vice, indulge. But do not publicly respond to a bad review. No good can come of it. Don’t believe me? Check out this post by a noted book blogger and the comments that followed. Then Google the author’s name. Her writing career, at least under her own name, is over. booksandpals.blogspot.com/2011/03/greek-seaman-jacqueline-howett
- Do not publicly trash other authors. It will not make you look good, even to those who agree with you, and it’s just bad manners.
- Remember that everything you say on the internet is both public and forever. Potential readers will read your posts and judge you by them, so think before you hit the share button.
- Don’t engage in author spam. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, spend a few minutes in any thread in the Amazon community forums and you’ll see it. Multiple people are having an online conversation and out of nowhere an author posts a synopsis about his or her book with a link to the title in the Amazon store, then disappears. This is author spam. Everyone hates it, including other authors. Not only does it not sell books, it makes it more likely that the person reading it will remember you as that annoying author who spams every board and they will never buy your book.
- If you’re going to use social media for promotion then it’s important to join the community and become part of the conversation (and recognize that most of those conversations are not going to be about you and your book).
Kindle Boards: http://www.kindleboards.com/
Kindle Boards Writer’s Café: http://www.kindleboards.com/index.php/board,60.0.html
Kindle Boards List of E-Book Resources: http://www.kindleboards.com/index.php/topic,50419.0.html
Joe Konrath’s Blog: http://www.jakonrath.blogspot.com/
Amazon’s Self-Publishing Program: http://www.amazon.com/gp/seller-account/mm-summary-page.html?topic=200260520
Barnes & Noble’s Self-Publishing Program (Pub It): http://pubit.barnesandnoble.com/pubit_app/bn?t=pi_reg_home
Smashwords Self-Publishing Program: http://www.smashwords.com/about/supportfaq#GettingStarted