Self Publishing 101: CliffNotes

TwainNow maybe I’m just old, but I still hear the phrase “self-published author” and cringe a little. Once, a fellow student in my high school creative writing class told me he had published a book already and I was totally floored- until it came out that he had self-published it. Self-published!  And then I was all internal sneers.

Self publishing has a stigma attached to it that all indie authors are talentless hacks who can’t get their stuff published and are too arrogant and/or stupid to drop it. And that just isn’t true. As it turns out, it was probably never true. Virginia Woolf. Thomas Paine. Mark Twain. Edgar Allen Poe. You ever heard of any of these folks? Yeah, I thought you might have. But did you know that all of these authors were also self-published? Woah!

Having kicked around the idea of self publishing a few times, I was pretty interested when Writer’s Digest advertised a free webinar titled Self Publishing 101. I signed up and listened in, and very much enjoyed the whole affair. And so, figuring you might enjoy it too, here it is, Self Publishing 101: CliffNotes.

There are three basic methods of self publishing: DIY, Partnership, and Supported.

When you Do It Yourself, you: get the cover created; hire your own editor (or edit it yourself, too); format the files; promote the book; and so on and so forth. You do all the work- and then give finished files to a distributor or retailer.

In a Partnership, you partner with a third party (agent, publisher, etc.) to share the work, the risk, and the profits. You receive no advance, but pay no fees either.

For Supported, you shell out for fee based services anybody can pay for: provide the document to the provider and they take care of the work. The least amount of effort on your part, but also the most expensive.

In the infancy of self-publishing (you know, ten, fifteen years ago), it was hard to find copyeditors, cover designers, and others. But as self publishing as grown, freelancers in these fields have proliferated, making them more widely available, and often less expensive.

E-Book only has become the favored child of self-publishing, which kind of surprised me. Again, it’s probably a byproduct of my being an old shrew who can’t let go of the past, but I don’t like e-books. It just doesn’t feel like a book to me unless there’s a copy in my hands. But e-books can achieve a much broader distribution than a print book, and the author gets to keep a larger percentage of the sale price. Also, most physical book sales in stores are impulse buys, especially when a reader is trying a new author; when selling physical books online, that impulse is gone, making the sale that much harder. (It’s okay, physical books. I still love you. *pat, pat*)

People are also turning more and more to crowdfunding to self- publishing. This works best for people with a good platform (previously published authors, famous people, etc.), but others can sometimes pull it off with a lot of hard work and dedication (and a hearty dose of good luck). Good platforms for this include Kickstarter, Pubslush, and Inkshare.

There are no set models for self publishing, and the industry changes fast. Build an audience for yourself and find your niche. Create your own model and see if it works.

Publishing is highly competitive, no matter how you go about it. It’s very easy to self publish- that’s why so many people are doing it. Easy as it is to get started, it’s a lot harder to be successful. Since there are so many titles out there, consumers have endless choices- and your book is only a tiny fraction of the options. If it’s not fantastic in some way, or better yet every way, it’s not going to sail.

The indie books most likely to succeed are identical in quality and appearance to any New York published book. Furthermore, success is more likely for those books with an educated, dedicated entrepreneur author who is willing to make investments of time, effort, and money. Authors have to be willing to learn about cover design, metadata, sales copy, discoverability, SEO, marketing, sales opportunities, and every other facet of the industry they can manage. The more you know, the more likely you are to succeed.

But of course, focusing all your efforts on building your newsletter subscriptions or working up a bigger twitter following or researching more effective metadata- all of that takes focus away from the writing itself. And without a product to sell, all of that is wasted effort. (Unless, you know, you just enjoy that stuff and it is its own reward. But for purposes of this article- WASTED.) Having a high quality product to sell is the only way to be successful.

Part of creating a high quality product is understanding your own limitations and paying a professional to cover those gaps. Hire an editor. Unless you’re a fantastic artist, hire a cover artist. Hire a book designer if that’s not your thing. Pay for a publicist. Whatever you think you are not equipped to do a good job of yourself, pay someone else to.

That frees you up to do what you do best: writing. Don’t get hung up on one book your entire life. Get it good and let it go. Publish it and move on to the next one. You’ll learn a little more with each book and build an audience along the way. Don’t just throw things out there as fast as you can, but don’t waste time and effort on an endless editing cycle.

Get it as good as you can and get it out there. Good luck!

Information from Writer’s Digest’s webinar Publishing 101, broadcast 02 February 2015. Guests included Cheryl Holt, bestselling indie author, and Steven Spatz, president of Book Baby. Moderated by the Writer’s Digest publisher Phil Sexton.  These instructors also answered a lot of listener questions throughout the presentation. If you’re interested in the questions, or want more details than those written above, it’s probably worth your time to listen to the full webinar, available here.