Last week I did a post entitled: Dear Publishers, listen to authors and put reader’s first where I held traditional publisher’s feet to the fire for things they were doing wrong and I thought they should address. But I’m an equal opportunity finger-wagger, so today I’ll put the shoe on the other foot and turn my attention to self-published authors and some things that they need to pay attention to.
For those that don’t know, I don’t take sides in the self verses traditional war. I see pros and cons to both, and since I’ve been successful at each, I think I can talk with a bit of authority on the subject. But here is my problem with self-publishing…there are two ways of going about it, and all too often writers chose the wrong one. So let’s get started.
Be the publisher
The above statement seems like common sense, and yet so many people don’t think of self-publishing this way. There are many who simply notice those who are successfully self-published and think it is some kind of get rich quick scheme. They belief you can simply toss a book up and the money will flow in…yeah right. If you think that, I also have a nice bridge that you might be interested in. But publishers know that not every book is going to be profitable, and they do everything they can to give each one a good shot. This means:
- Not all books deserve to see the light of day: There is a reason so many books are rejected…most aren’t any good. So just because you have a trunk load of dubious quality early novels doesn’t mean you should just dust them off and hit “publish.” You might believe there is no harm, thinking “What do I have to lose.” The answer is a lot. Your reputation is the most important commodity you own and if you disrespect readers by putting out something not ready for prime time you’ll have to change your name to remove the stink. I wrote twelve novels before the one I eventually debuted with. Eight of them were simply for practice. They are staying where they should. Where only I know what resides on those pages.
- Production values matter: Publishers think carefully about the packaging of the book. This includes: title, cover, taglines, back-of-the-book copy, categories, keywords, metadata. They don’t leave anything to chance and consider how each decision might effect sales. You are now responsible for these things — that is a good thing — embrace the freedom — but do every bit as good a job as “a real publisher” because if you want to be successful, you need to think and act like one.
- Editing is essential: With the exception of a few small presses, that simply publish what is submitted, every publisher spends a significant amount of time and money on editing. This starts with structural editing which examines the piece at a very high level. It is here where extraneous scenes are cut, character motivations are scrutinized, pacing is fine tuned, and whole new sections may need to be written. After that, comes copy editing. Making sure all the commas are in the right place, tenses agree, and there are no homophone errors or incorrect word choices. When self-publishing you’ll need to be twice as good to get half the credit so you’ll need to pay even more attention to this then books traditionally published. Last but not least is the proofing and layout checks. Producing a book can be a long and exhausting experience but don’t stumble right before the finish line.
Not the easy way out
Yesterday I was posting on this thread on reddit in the writing sub: Does anyone else feel like Self-Publishing is the “easy way out”? If you take heed to the first section of this post you’ll understand just how ludicrous this statement is. Not only do you have your original job to do (write the book) but now you are a one-person publishing company with responsibilities for activities that generally span several departments: production, marketing, sales, distribution. For my traditionally published books there are 10-15 people involved in getting it to market. Each of their roles are essential, and as a self-published author that now all falls to you. So for those who tell you, “You can just hit publish and that’s it.” Run very far and very fast because they don’t have a clue.
If you REALLY want to be successful when self-publishing, your books MUST stand toe-to-toe when compared to those coming out from New York. If I (or your readers) can tell it’s a self-published book, then your chances of success go down by a factor of 10. Only the truly exceptional reads can survive a bad cover design…I’m looking at you Hugh Howey (and you know I love you bro) but it is only because he had such fabulous writing that his book didn’t get lost with the terrible initial covers that he released with. Take a look at these:
All self-published books — but with every bit of professionalism that New York puts into their own covers. I often report on the the bestselling epic fantasy titles and when Mitchell’s book started hitting the list, I had to dig a bit to determine if it was self or traditionally published — this should be your goal as well.
Don’t be a vanity publisher
What do I mean by that? A vanity publisher is one that could care less whether a book sells any copies. They are designed to do one thing, stroke a would-be author’s ego by putting a finished book in their hands so they can hold it up and say, “Look, I’m published.” A vanity publisher doesn’t care about quality or whether a book is “worthy” of being out there. All to often I see self-publishers doing exactly that. Slapping together something and hitting publish and dooming themselves to failure and adding to a see of dross. Again, I’ll hearken back to opening section. Real publishers focus on sales and cultivating a readership, so should you.
Self-publishing is not for everyone, and if you aren’t planning on doing it right, then don’t bother doing it at all. The world doesn’t need one more poorly edited, badly formatted, ugly book with substandard writing. Can it be viable? Absolutely. If done well, it can outperform traditionally published titles, but go into it with your eyes wide open. If you aren’t willing to do what it takes to produce something at the level of quality required, then seek traditional publishing and give up some of your profits to someone else to do what is needed. The world always has room for another quality book that is well produced. Keep your eye on that objective and, if you can deliver, there is no reason you won’t be successful.