As a self-published author, I get people asking me my thoughts about publishing. I’ll try to capture some of my thoughts and lessons learned.
First off, why self-publish instead of traditional publishing? I want to say this was a difficult decision for me, but in truth, it wasn’t. In the beginning, I sent my manuscript to some agents and got rejected with the typical, “Although we feel your work has merit, it isn’t a fit for us at this time.” One of my favorite books, Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, was rejected 126 times before it was published. Rejection isn’t high on my list of ways to spend time. Unlike the 1970’s when Pirsig was trying to get published, we have so many other options and no one stopping us. Once you’ve written and refined your work, Smashwords.com, Amazon.com, IngramSpark.com and other services, give access to the whole world with little cost and little effort.
When I thought about the pros and cons of each, I came up with a handful of areas to consider. I will address those.
An Advance: That sounds great, doesn’t it? To get the chance for that check, you have to have a query letter and manuscript which beats out the tall stacks of other query letters and manuscripts every publisher wades through. If you’re skilled enough, then you may be lucky enough to catch the eye of someone who sees merit in your work. Remember, Pirsig was rejected 126 times before he was lucky enough to get his work in front of the right person who finally saw the merit in his work. This process is very subjective and the people reading your work are extremely busy. If you get noticed, you may be offered upfront money or maybe not. Currently, a typical advance is between $5,000 and $15,000 which translates to, “don’t quit your day job.” I’d been rejected a number of times and wasn’t interested in working that hard for a small chance for a small advance, dependent on the whim of someone I’d never met.
Distribution: In my mind, this was a bigger advantage of traditional publishing. Getting my books in bookstores didn’t seem like something I could do by myself. Amazon and Smashwords were easy and opened me up to the world but, it still wasn’t the shelves of a bookstore. That seemed important. Austin, Texas has a very large independent bookstore called Book People. I contacted them and was pleased with how willing they were to work with me. For a small fee, I got my book on the shelf right next to Richard Bach’s Illusions. This was a big deal for me. Illusions was a very important book in my personal development and if I hadn’t read it, I wouldn’t have written The Infinite Jeff. My book was on a bookshelf, right next to a major book, in a high traffic book store. Even better, part of the fee I paid got my book on a table labeled “Noteworthy books” at the front of the store, prime placement near the store entrance, and not far from the checkout. I think I’ve sold four books there. Yawn. It is the same with other bookstores I’m in. People may browse around bookstores, but the chances of them finding your book and buying it are slim. People buy books they are familiar with. They go in with something in mind.
But still, distribution is huge. This is where IngramSpark comes in. Worldwide, libraries and bookstores order most of their books from Ingram. IngramSpark gives you access to that market. There is a cost to uploading your book and a cost for any revisions you make, but if you join Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA), you can get those services for free. You now have access to exactly what the big players have, and IngramSpark and IBPA will hit you up for every penny they can get. You will be offered the cover of this catalog for only $xxx, or this promotion for $xxx. You will get emails almost every day with a different offer. You could spend hundreds or thousands of dollars for the chance to get your book noticed. This may or may not be the right thing to do. You’ll have to decide what you’re willing to spend.
IngramSpark has an awful website. Whereas, Amazon gives you a nice graph of your sales by just logging in, IngramSpark makes you fill out a very confusing form, and then, if you don’t magically know what to fill out, they will only email you the sales report. They say there are working on the website but I haven’t seen any updates to make it a better site.
MAJOR NOTE with distribution! If you’re thinking about going with both Amazon AND IngramSpark, DO NOT choose Amazon’s ‘extended distribution’. Once you do that, when you add your book on IngramSpark, it needs a new ISBN. You will have two ISBN’s for the same book and both will show up on Amazon as different books because they have different ISBN’s. Once you check the ‘extended distribution’ checkbox, unchecking will not fix this. (More on ISBN’s later.)
Marketing: We think about book signings, speaking gigs, conferences, radio, TV, social media, etc., and all the glamour and glory which follows. I know a number of published authors personally. What they tell me is, if you aren’t one of the major authors of that year for your publishing house, you’re pretty much on your own. You set up the book signings, speaking engagements, radio, and whatever else you can.
Marketing for an author is hit and miss whether they’ve taken the traditional roads or forged their own path. In my experience, independent book stores love having authors come do book signings and they don’t care how you’ve published your book. This form of marketing is available for as much time, energy, and travel as you want to put into it. But set realistic expectations. Zero is a very likely number of people showing up if you don’t have a local presence. Don’t let that scare you though, because the social media aspect makes it worthwhile. Keeping your social media presence is important and how you do it is important. Spamming people’s feeds with trivial nonsense trivializes you. If people see you’re holding a book signing, then see pictures of you at the bookstore, then they see it next month and the following week, you look like a mover and shaker. Unless there’s a large crowd, you don’t need to say how many people showed up. If someone does show up, see if they want to take a picture and share it. If I’m going somewhere, I’ll usually contact a local independent bookstore and arrange a book signing. I even did one at Barnes & Noble. They were very nice about doing it. As a bonus, this makes your trip a business trip and you can write off some of the trip cost.
Local libraries are the same as bookstores, they love authors. They may need to plan more to tie your arrival to an event. This helps them make the event look grand. They can use words like, “Special Guest Author!” Get to know your local librarian.
We all know social media is very important and we all know we should be better at it than we are. No matter how well you do it, you could do it better. Take that as a known, be okay with it, and keep doing better. I’ll be honest, I mostly use Facebook but I’m trying to get better with others. (BTW, go follow me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and even here on Medium) Sometimes I pay for ads and the ad gets likes or comments, but when I look at who is responding, it doesn’t seem to fit my target audience. Also, there isn’t a correlation to book sales. I’m careful about ads. I like them for events or to drive people to content I want to get out. For example, when I write a Medium post, I may share it and create an ad for it.
Time to Market: If you do get your query letter noticed by an agent, get your manuscript read by them, the agent successfully pitches it to a publisher, and lucky enough to get an offer, Congratulations! Now the work is just starting. It will take twelve to eighteen months to get your book out. Once you sign the contract, the edits and rewrites start. Now the cover design is done. Did you like your title? Maybe you can keep it. Maybe not. It isn’t up to you anymore. Now the different rights have to get negotiated. You have international rights, translation, movie, audio, TV, etc. If you self-publish, put the book out when you’re ready, set up the direct deposit and you’re done.
Editing, Formatting, Cover, ISBN: If you go with traditional publishing, this is all done through your publisher and they control the process. You make the changes they want to get your work published. If you self-publish, this is all on you or, any friends and family you can talk into helping or services you pay for. My sister is an amazing writer and editor. We spent a lot of time and effort working together to edit and format the story. There are plenty of services you can pay to do this but, set expectations, they will most likely make more off you than you will ever make off your book. These services may cost a lot but, if your story is not well edited, just quit now. There are way too many poorly written and poorly edited stories out there. Just because your mom liked your book, doesn’t mean the world is ready for it. Please don’t bring down the reputation of self-publishing any more by putting out another bad book.
The cover is important. I work in the high-tech field and know a lot of graphic artists. A couple of them were nice enough to help me out. There are many companies doing covers. Some are very reasonably priced.
ISBN’s are pretty easy. You go to Bowker and can get one for $125 or ten for $295. When you assign the ISBN to your book, there’s a field for a publisher's name. You pick a name, and boom, you have a publishing company.
I’ve made many mistakes and learned a lot. Too many times, I’ve read articles I wished I had read the week before. I hope this quick summary helps you and here’s the last bit of advice. Get involved with a writing community, get involved with other writers. I live in a small town but we have a Spoken Word group and very active community theater. Being around creative people inspires creativity. If you know other writers, BUY their work, read it and review it. You will want people doing that for you. If you can’t take the time and effort to read and review their work, why would you expect others to do that for you?
Good luck on your journey.