I just spent most of today fighting with book formatting for a thing I’ll talk about in good time, which led me to dust this set of notes I drew up off for your reading pleasure. Because occasionally people have asked me for advice about self-publishing. Which is funny, because it assumes I know what I’m doing, which I don’t, but here, at least, are some things I used to not know that I have since learned.
1) Recognize that everyone will assume you are an unprofessional git. This is potentially true, but equally, may well not be. It doesn’t matter. You’re self-publishing, which means you couldn’t get a real publisher, which means you must suck. Never mind the myriad of sane reasons to self-publish and the fact that you might just be working in a niche market where the overhead of professional publishing renders your book financially unsound. You’re a hack because you’re self-publishing. Therefore almost everything you do has to be done with the knowledge that this is how people see you.
2) There is shit you have to pay for. You cannot edit your own book. You just can’t. Nor can you give it to a friend to edit unless that friend is a professional editor or at least should be. Just having been an English major isn’t enough. My main two copyeditors are a professional editor and a former student whose work I was particularly impressed by. I have many, many friends with English degrees, graduate and undergraduate, who I would not let near my prose in a million years. That said, if you can work with a fan or friend who will subsidize the cost out of love for you or your work, it helps.
3) Your editor is right. I know. You loved that line. You thought it was brilliant. Tough. Your editor is right. Your editor is always right. This is, in fact, the primary thing to look for in hiring an editor: that they will always be right. You want someone you will grudgingly defer to every time. You’re allowed some raging against the dying of the light – I routinely mark things as “leave this as I wrote it, but also leave this comment in place so I can meekly change it back next round of edits.” My editor pretends to allow me dignity. It’s very nice of her. But frankly, the number of times you overrule your editor should be miniscule if you have a good editor. This requires you to be careful in choosing your editor. But it’s the key trait – that they will be someone who is always, obnoxiously, right.
4) You probably can’t do your own cover design. You can probably buy some stock photo or something and slap some writing on it, but your cover will look like shit and everyone will know that you’re a self-publishing hack the moment they look at your book. Pay an artist real money. Again, a fan or friend is ideal, but make sure they’re good at it, and more to the point good at the style you want out of them. Simple covers can be fine, but make sure it looks professional. Look to the covers of academic presses – they’re usually done very cheaply but don’t look like crap. (I’m very lucky here – James is phenomenally good and works for a song because he’s terribly nice.)
5) You’ll notice a recurring theme here. Making it as a visionary solo artist is insane. Get a community. I am a big proponent of always getting paid, but of working for free or cheap among colleagues and friends. This requires having colleagues and friends. Even that way, self-publishing is expensive – a book costs me nearly $1000 to put out, and I get very, very good rates from my freelancers and am willing to do a lot myself.
6) Marketing. It’s actually a thing. A sustained marketing campaign is exhausting, frustrating, and you spend lots of time doing things for few rewards. But unless you’ve got a sizable built-in audience, it’s the only way to work. I can convert roughly 10-15% of my daily readership into book sales for a given book. I have no idea if that’s a good conversion rate, a crappy one, or a normal one, but it’s what I get. So do the math and make sure you know what you’re doing. If you’ve got 200 readers a day then your book isn’t going to sell much. Maybe a few people will find it on Amazon – in non-fiction, at least, that happens. Otherwise, you need to know how to market your book.
7) You do not know how to market your book. It is as different a skill from writing a book as doing cover art is. If you think you have the gift for this, go for it, and remember that you’re going to spend a week or two mainly doing something very different from the writing you actually enjoy. If you don’t, hire a publicist.
8) You also don’t know how to format an ebook. You never do, actually – every book I’ve put out has had some bizarre formatting snafu, and I’ve started to just plan on losing two days to one every book. Your first book will be longer than two days unless you do it very wrong, i.e. badly. (This is what I did. I don’t recommend it.) For God’s sake, take an ebook and a print book and look at the formatting. Make yours resemble it. Learn how to do a linked table of contents. If you haven’t thought extensively about font choice, you’re doing it wrong. You can pay someone for this as well, but I at least found it relatively easy to pick up on from tutorials on Amazon, Createspace, and Smashwords.
9) Incidentally, those are the three companies to deal with. You can sub Lulu in for Createspace. I don’t, but plenty of people do. Smashwords will be a small segment of your income, but a lovely one, as they get you into every ebook store save for Amazon. Amazon you need to deal with directly, which is simple. Yes, they’re evil. Tough. You want to put a book out, you have to get in bed with Amazon. Maybe 3% of my annual writing income doesn’t pass through Amazon’s bank accounts at one time or another. Createspace and/or Lulu are for print editions. Amazon owns Createspace, incidentally.