An Honest Look at Self-Publishing

I almost wrote this post several months ago, or a version of it anyway. This was right after my Kickstarter went down in flames and I was feeling a little defeated and lost as to where to go next, and it was coming out a bit whiny, so I scrapped it. Since then, I’ve taken a tumble over the wall into the land of traditional indie publishing, which has given me some perspective, and more thoughts, and now I think I’m ready to write them down properly. So here goes.

After a lot of research, some deep thought, and trial and error, I published my debut novel, Restless Spirits, in 2011. I followed that up the next year with Dominion of the Damned, which was intended to be a trilogy. After that, life got kind of bumpy for a while, and instead of doing what I probably should have done, immediately writing and publishing the next Damned book (as opposed to the next damn book), I floundered, letting myself get distracted by those aforementioned life bumps and shiny new ideas. Knowing that I needed to build up my publishing offerings to have any real hope of sustainable sales, I put out some shorter works, i.e. a couple of novellas and a short story collection.

So that’s my first–and probably biggest, mistake: not building a strong foundation.

At any rate, I definitely qualify as a self-published author. I also do freelance work (mainly editing and book formatting) to help other self-published authors produce their books. All of which is to underscore that I don’t have a traditional publishing axe to grind–in fact, self-publishing helps me make my living in more ways than one. But I feel like self-publishing has a tendency to be romanticized, or seen as the magic bullet to making all your publishing dreams come true.

And I’m here to tell you, it’s not the easy road. Far from it.

There’s a tendency to think that if someone has a good story, all they need to do is put it out there on Amazon and the readers will come. But that’s not the case. I’m going to risk sounding immodest by saying that Restless Spirits and Dominion of the Damned are both good stories. Sure, I’m biased, but they’ve both got a respectable number of positive reviews telling me I’m not delusional to think so. But sales, while greater than zero, have been far from what I’d hoped they’d be. Once in a while I get a royalty deposit that’s big enough to order a pizza or fill the car up with gas, and that’s a really good month, is what I’m saying.

These books also have pretty good production value. They’re well edited, and while I did the covers myself, I have a background in graphic design, and I put a lot of hours into studying book cover design and what tends to sell best in my genres. They might not be the greatest, but they’re far from the worst.

So what’s the problem? Apart from my error in not immediately continuing my series, as best as I can diagnose it, I believe it’s that I’m terrible at marketing myself.

Don’t get me wrong. Some people have found phenomenal success with self-publishing. Many more self-pubbed authors have developed comfortable and respectable mid-list careers. The biggest difference between them and me, as far as I can tell, is that they’re a lot better at marketing and getting people excited about their books. They also have more time and money to invest in book promotion than I do.

My point is, self-publishing isn’t for everyone. If you’re trying to decide whether or not it might be for you, these are factors you should take into consideration.

Does this mean that self-publishing is no longer for me? Honestly, I don’t know. I thought it was six months ago, but since then serendipity (or as I like to call it, Providence) put Restless Spirits in front of the right person and now I have a multi-book publishing contract. But it remains to be seen whether traditional publishing is a better fit.

I will say that the main thing that tipped the scales toward me signing the contract is the help that the publisher will provide with marketing. They won’t do everything, and will expect me to do a lot on my own that I didn’t even think to do before, but I’ll have an unseen hand behind me, pushing me to step outside my comfort zone and get it done. I expect that this will be a big help. I really hope I’m right about that. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

The other benefit I’m finding to having signed a traditional contract is that it’s keeping me motivated and focused. With self-publishing comes a lot of freedom, and sometimes too much freedom is crippling. I could write whatever I want whenever I want, but knowing that led to decision paralysis and jumping around from project to project without finishing anything. Now I have a legal obligation to stay focused on this one book (and then write the next one) until my contract is fulfilled. For someone who does best with structure, this is certainly a plus. But some people might find this too stifling.

If you’re on the fence about self-publishing, the advice I can offer (out of my admittedly limited experience) is this: if you just want to be published, to have a book (or e-book) to hold in your hands and show your family and friends, or to point to your cover on Amazon and say, “I wrote that!” then go for it. However, if your dream is to have an honest-to-God writing career that actually brings in at least a substantial portion of your income, you should approach this as a business decision, and approach self-publishing as a business. Create a business plan that includes how you’ll handle book production costs, and that also includes a marketing plan, and be honest with yourself about whether or not it’s realistic and sustainable. If not, give traditional publishing another try. Self-publishing isn’t going anywhere, and it will still be there when you’re ready.

Game-changing Resources for Indie Authors,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-v3-big,TopRight,0,-55_SX278_SY278_PIkin4,BottomRight,1,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_.jpgI’ve been trying to keep my topics here more general because I know not everyone who visits my blog are writers, but sometimes I feel compelled to share certain things for the sake of the writers who I know do read this here blog (note to writers: if you want me to post more writing/publishing content, holla!). For example, I recently stumbled across a couple of resources that I think are going to be game-changers for me when it comes to marketing and selling my indie books.

The first of these is Nick Stephenson and his concept of Reader Magnets (hat tip to Joanna Penn). This is not necessarily a new concept, but he lays out the precise steps involved in using freebies to build your mailing list for dense people like me who have trouble figuring it out on their own (and he does so for free). Funny thing is, there are only two steps–maybe that’s why I had so much trouble figuring this out on my own. It’s too dadgum simple.

At any rate, I implemented these steps a couple of weekends ago (hence why Restless Spirits is now perma-free), and already I’ve added more than 10 new mailing list subscribers, without doing anything else. That might not sound like an impressive result, but considering it took me over two years just to get 30 people to sign up on my own, that’s a pretty big deal.

I also signed up to Nick’s free video course, Your First 10K Readers, a series of three videos explaining how people find books on the various online bookstores. Video #2, which explains how to leverage keywords on Amazon, was particularly helpful at increasing the Amazon rankings for Restless Spirits. The third video pretty much recaps the first two and then goes over the Reader Magnets steps, so at nearly an hour long, you can probably skip it if you’re busy and not miss very much.

Finally, in order to make Restless Spirits perma-free, I had to first distribute it for free everywhere but Amazon, and then wait for Amazon to price match it. Since you can’t list your books for free by going directly through Nook Press, Kobo, etc., I used Draft2Digital to distribute it. This is not really that new of a service, but I haven’t used it in the past because I was under the impression that it’s a paid service. And it is, sort of; they keep 10% of the royalties you earn through them. But they also track sales on all of your non-’zon sales channels, and you can publish free books through them at no cost.

This is exceedingly useful, as before the only way to do this was via Smashwords, which, if you’ve published there, you know is a PITA. Plus, D2D recently added Tolino to their distribution channels, which is the largest online bookseller in Europe next to Amazon–and as far as I know, D2D is the only way to get your books listed there if you’re in the US.

What about you, readers (and writers!)? Are there any tools or resources you can’t do without? Have you gotten any good advice that turned out to be a game-changer for your own writing career? Please share your tips in the comments!

Links: What’s Steampunk, Sleepy Hollow preview, and more

I didn’t get all of my freelance work done before the weekend, so I’m having to work today. It’s mostly my own fault for not managing my time as well as I could have, but then again this was a pretty hectic week that involved more errands and more reasons to leave the house than usual (including a second trip to Bixby to pick up Pete’s meds from the vet because she didn’t have them stocked when we were there on Wednesday. Let me tell you, that is quite a long way to drive for such a simple errand), so I’ll go ahead and cut myself some slack.

The plan is to get this last article written before lunch, then I’ll be free the rest of the weekend. Except I also have a couple of short things I need to write for a Fiverr client by Monday evening. I’m still dithering on whether to buckle down and get those done today so I can take Labor Day off, or just wait and do them Monday so I can enjoy most of my Saturday. Considering that “enjoying” my Saturday involves laundry and vacuuming the house, I’ll probably hold off on the extra work until Monday.

Also on today’s agenda: trimming my unruly hair (still debating whether to give myself straight bangs or keep them longish and side swept, even though I usually regret straight bangs because they never lay down like I want them to, and yet I never seem to learn), fiddling with the outline for the new novel, and pulling my horror short story collection together for beta readers.

And now I’ll leave you with some links that are open in my browser that might be of interest to you:

The truth is I have no idea what I’m doing.

I’m taking a break from my Stephen King binge to read House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. It’s been on my wish list for a while now and when I came across a (battered but readable) copy at the used book store the other day I snatched it up and since then I’ve been doing my very best to force myself to meet my responsibilities and obligations and not just lose myself in this book until I’m done. I don’t want to say too much about it yet — partly because I don’t want to spoil anything; you don’t read this book so much as experience it, and it’s really best if you come to it knowing as little about it as possible — and also because I get the feeling I won’t really know what I’m talking about until I’ve finished it. Anyway, it’s good. Scary. Scary good.

My patreon campaign isn’t going so well, which is discouraging, because to be honest this is kind of my last-ditch effort at being an indie author. I’ve been looking over my sales totals and, despite excellent reviews, despite decent publicity here and there, despite about a dozen other things, the numbers are just pitiful. I’ve said since I started this experiment that self-publishing isn’t for everybody. Now I’m starting to face the harsh truth that it might not be for me. At first I liked the idea of DIYing everything and being in total control, but the truth is I just can’t do it all by myself, and I don’t have the resources to put together a team to polish everything and make it look truly professional. And honestly, if you can’t do that, then you don’t have much hope of competing in this market.

I’ve been kind of depressed about this, honestly. Definitely discouraged. Trying to figure out where to go from here. With nobody showing any real interest in Intruder (apart from a small handful of Facebook likes) I’m wondering if I should back-burner it and focus my wee slivers of writing time on finishing Radium Town and then submitting it to agents. Or if I should start submitting Restless Spirits and/or Dominion of the Damned to some small publishing houses. Or maybe even submit them to agents. I don’t know. I’m overwhelmed and flailing, and this is why I think I might need an agent, so he or she can help me figure out what’s best.

Or should I just stick it out and focus on getting two more books out there and see what happens when I get to the “magical” number six? Six books seems to be the average number when sales really start to take off and royalties start to become a livable wage. Am I just not being patient enough? Not tenacious enough? I don’t know. I only know that I’m very tired and the technical production and design aspects of my books leave a lot to be desired and I’m barely finding time to write, let alone to market them effectively, and it seems that teaming with an agent and publisher(s) could help fix at least some of those problems, but I fear it would also create as many problems as it solves.

Just thinking out loud here. Maybe I shouldn’t, but there it is.

In other news, Hannibal and Once Upon a Time both kind of broke my heart this week, and the Walking Dead season finale was kind of uneventful. Right now on Twitter everybody’s talking about the How I Met Your Mother finale, but I don’t watch that show, so I can’t comment.

And now I’m going to make some cocoa and dive back into my scary book and try not to think about my even scarier sales reports.

Editing the Heck Out of Your Indie Novel – Part Three: 3rd Draft to Print

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This is part three in what’s shaping up to be a four-part series. If you missed part one, which mainly covers WHY you should take extra pains in editing your indie novel, you can read it here. Part two, covering initial revisions and rounding up good first readers, is here.



Step Five

Send it to your beta readers. This group should look for both story problems AND technical problems. While you wait for feedback from this group, round up yet another group of beta readers. This last group should contain your eagle-eyed grammar cop friends, because they’ll be focusing mainly on looking for technical errors. These last two groups might sound redundant, but believe me, the interim group is necessary. They’ll catch things the first readers missed as far as story problems, and also get you well under way to a clean and polished fourth draft.

Step Six

Repeat Step Four with the latest round of feedback. This time, as you read through your manuscript and make edits, you’ll want to go through the whole thing, sentence by sentence. Start by doing a blanket find & delete of words you know you tend to overuse. Read every sentence and paragraph and justify every word, every dialogue attribution, every piece of punctuation, every chapter break and paragraph break and scene break. Read it aloud to yourself — especially the dialogue — to make sure nothing is stilted or awkwardly written.

Once you’re satisfied, or you just can’t stand to look at it anymore, celebrate completing your fourth draft and send it to the last group of beta readers.

Step Seven

Protip: don’t send it to this entire group at once. Send it to the majority, but hold off on sending it to the most trusted and eagle-eyed members of the group. Once you get the initial feedback, go through the manuscript again, formatting it for publication and fixing any errors they pointed out as you go.

Now that it’s all formatted and proofed, send it to the last of your beta readers. If possible, send it to them in its final format. Send one an e-book file and send the other a paperback proof copy. Have them look for formatting errors as well as typos and grammar & spelling errors. This is important, as these things WILL come back to bite you when people start leaving reviews.

If they find errors, fix them. Order another proof and check that the errors are indeed fixed in the print edition.

Congratulations. You have completed your fifth and final draft. NOW you are ready to unleash your masterpiece on the world. Upgrade your beverage to a glass of champagne and toast yourself as you upload your novel files to your various publishing platforms, confident in the knowledge that you did everything humanly possible to make it professional and legit.

Now to recap: that’s SEVEN steps involving FIVE drafts and FOUR different groups of readers. That’s what it takes to bring your novel up to a professional, publishable, ready-for-primetime level “by yourself.” If indeed you want your readers to regard you as a professional and take you seriously, don’t take any shortcuts that don’t involve simply hiring a professional editor to do most of this for you. And if you can afford to do that? Then just do it. You’ll be glad you did.

Do you have any questions for me about the editing process? If so, leave it in a comment. If it’s not already addressed in the next two parts of this series, I’ll do a follow-up Q&A post at the end. Also, I’d LOVE to hear any editing tips you have to offer.

Ready for the Q&A? You can read it here.