[My fourth and final essay for The Dillydoun Review. A couple of notes – since I wrote this I have become a member of both the SFWA and the Author’s Guild, and my first traditionally published novel “Beyond Tomorrow’s Sun” will be published by Cinnabar Moth Publishing in December 2024]
In my previous essay I said that the next step, after writing something, is to get published. Following that same line, the next step after publication is to get paid. Of course, lots of people write for the sheer joy of writing and are satisfied for their work to be published without ever getting paid.
I do not fall into that category.
I want to do this full time for the rest of my life and to make that work, I need to earn a living at writing. Additionally, some of the best writers’ associations, like the SFWA – Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America – require members to be published in paying markets that meet specific criteria.
After two years, I’m happy to report that this year I managed to turn a small profit. About enough to pay my electric bill for one month, but a profit all the same. That income was small because it was stacked against the losses incurred with my first book.
It may seem strange to think of writing that way, profit and loss, but it’s essential for me because I self-published that first book, and there’s a ton of cost associated with such an effort.
Of course, I’ve said it before – I made every mistake a new author can make in the self-publishing game, and invented a few new ones. Mistakes cost extra, like sides at a homestyle diner.
There’s nothing wrong with self-publishing and there are a lot of people making very good money at it. But for every one of them there are thousands who never earn a penny from their self-published work.
This may be changing as platforms like Medium and Wattpad offer writers new ways to monetize their writing. For the purpose of this essay, I’m going to focus on a few of the ins and outs of self-publishing novels as compared to traditional publishing, and leave these newer platforms out of the discussion.
Experienced readers can spot most self-published books in an instant, first from the cover, then the layout and font, and of course there’s always the dreaded typos. Enough of those and your novel will look more like alphabet soup than a polished work of art.
Yes, I made all of those mistakes. I created a hideous cover using stock images, chose a terrible font, failed to properly align my pages and paragraphs, and filled every chapter with the worst of amateurish writing (including multiple typos in every chapter).
In the end, for me, that was OK.
It was my first go at a novel and I was in fact an amateur. I got over the embarrassment because after 20 years in the entertainment and media business, I’ve got thick skin that protects me even from my own self-inflicted barbs. Thankfully I had not made any effort to market the book at that point.
Before I go any further, let’s take a moment to set the self-publishing stage.
Amazon is the most obvious behemoth in the industry, but it’s not the only one, especially if we’re talking e-books. The digital marketplace for novels is enormous and multifaceted, with Apple, Barnes & Noble, Ingram, Kobo, and others all getting in on the game. This is not an exhaustive list, but its enough for now.
On the print side, print-on-demand (POD) continues to evolve and grow. Many people still love a bound copy of a book, myself included – I’m a former bookstore owner after all. But the convenience of loading up a lightweight device with a store’s worth of books is hard to beat.
If you’ve written a novel and have decided on self-publishing, like it or not you’re now a player on this stage. If you’re like me, you’re somewhere back in the rigging, or lost in the curtains, nowhere near the spotlight. Gotta start someplace, but before you take the plunge here are some things I learned along the way.
First, publishing your book does not equal selling your book. You need to package that book to look as much like traditionally published books as possible, choose the right platform and format, hire the right editorial services, if you can afford them, and get your marketing game working, including social media.
Quick note: as a good friend and fellow writer once told me, Twitter isn’t for sales, it’s for snark. Your mileage may vary, but I do believe he’s right about the first part of that statement. Use Twitter to build a following and make connections, but don’t expect it to deliver book sales.
When I received the box containing printed copies of my first book, the cover art was like syrup of ipecac for the eyes. Yes, it was that bad. Then I started reading and it got worse. The saving grace is that no reader perusing a shelf would have picked up the book and started reading in the first place.
If you’re going to self-publish, do yourself a favor and get a professionally designed cover, or at least take the time to research what a good cover should look like and how to create one. I redesigned mine and while it’s still not great, it will do for now and has garnered a few compliments, so I’ll call that an improvement. Social media is a good place to find talented artists creating amazing book covers. These will set you back at least $500, and the best ones will cost a lot more. However you create your cover, both your e-book and printed book will use it, so make this first impression count.
Now that you have your packaged product, it’s time to decide where to sell it. This is too broad a topic to cover in one essay, but basically if you go with Amazon and you use Amazon’s free ISBN (International Standard Book Number) and place your e-book in Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program, you’re done, that’s it. You won’t be able to place your book on any other platform without violating Amazon’s terms, and that ISBN will only be searchable via Amazon. You have to decide if this is OK for you, and clearly there are many writers for whom it’s just fine.
For me, it was a mistake that still needs correcting.
I urge you to buy your own ISBN. It’s neither difficult or expensive and I believe it’s more than worth it. ISBN.org is a good place to start.
Because once you’ve done that, a whole world of opportunity opens up. You can publish your book through every e-book and print-on-demand market out there, and you can hire a company to handle that for you. One such company is Draft2Digital. I’m not endorsing them, I am not currently a customer. But as examples go, they’re a good one. They also get a nod of approval from the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) and their “Best Self-Publishing Services” list.
A service like Draft2Digital can take your finished novel and cover art and publish to multiple e-book and POD markets simultaneously. This particular company does not charge any upfront fees and instead takes a cut of sales. If you go this path, do your homework before making any commitment, but its nice to know this type of service exists, especially one that takes some of the risk, and cost, out of the equation.
This is also true for any editorial services you might purchase. A good editor, like a good agent, is worth their weight in gold. I didn’t bother to ask anyone, much less an editor, to read my book before I published it. Huge mistake. I’m eternally grateful to whatever forces in the universe prompted me to re-read my book before I began marketing it.
That’s the next piece of the puzzle, marketing. It’s not enough to post your book to social media, unless you’re Stephen King and one tweet can reach millions of fans. But social media didn’t build Stephen King’s catalog into a juggernaut. Old-school publishing, and a bunch of scary movies, did that.
As with publishing, there are a lot of companies out there that claim they can market your book to their huge social media following. In my opinion, most of these companies are not worth it. They have no idea who is going to see a book promo on their social feeds, and you have no idea if their numbers are legit or their followers are your target audience. Some may be better than others, but if you’re going to use a marketing service, go back to that ALLi list and make an informed choice. I prefer a service that has highly targeted email campaign capabilities, but you may find success elsewhere.
NOTE: DO NOT PAY for reviews of your book on Amazon or any other market. This is a fast way to get the reviews deleted and your book pulled from the platform. Many companies offer this, and it is true that reviews help drive sales, but any company that charges for reviews puts your hard work at risk by potentially violating the terms of almost every marketplace out there. Don’t waste your money. Instead do book swaps, give-aways, etc, always with the caveat that you seek honest reviews, good or bad. You and your readers deserve honest feedback.
Which leads me to the next part of this process, ongoing marketing. You can’t market your book once and expect sales to continue on forever. You can light a fire with a single match, but if you want it to keep you warm through the long dark night, you need to stoke it every so often. A great way to do this is to build your own email list. If you’re serious about being an author, you should have a website. If you have a website, you can place links to your site and to your email sign-up page in your ebook. There are low-cost and free services like TinyLetter that provide an alternative to full-fledge email marketing tools and services. If you want to keep readers engaged, keep them in the loop via opt-in emails. When your next book comes out, you’ll be able to market directly to consumers who’ve already shown interest in your work. You can’t get much more targeted than that.
Now, if all of that hasn’t scared you away from self-publishing then I say go for it. As for me, I was spending more time on publishing, sales, and marketing than I was spending on writing. It was costing me money on top of the time as well.
But I still don’t have a publishing deal because I haven’t put in the effort to get one. After a few ham-fisted attempts at querying agents I realized two things. First, I didn’t know what a good query letter looked like and second, I wasn’t ready for an agent. What I am ready for is a publisher who accepts unsolicited work from un-agented writers. There are more of these out there than you might think! That’s my focus now. I want go the traditional publishing route with my novels going forward, but through a publisher first. If I can make that happen, then maybe I’ll need an agent later and presumably I’ll be ready for eventually. In other words, if a publisher picks up one of my books, and that book sells, it should make meeting a good agent much easier.
Because a lot of what you have to do to be successful as an author, an agency and/or publisher will do for you. They will be taking on the time, effort, cost and risk associated with bringing a new novel from an unknown author into the world. They’re good at it and that’s why they take a percentage, but it’s also why it’s the more difficult path for new authors. We represent unknown risk, and any business that survives for any length of time does so in part by mitigating risk, and publishing is filled to the rafters with risk.
Whichever path you chose, if you take the time to educate yourself, spend you money wisely, and put in the effort to learn as much as you can about the publishing business, you’ll get where you’re going eventually. When that happens, don’t forget where you came from and the journey you’ve undertaken. There are a lot of successful writers out there and one thing many have in common is a willingness to share what they’ve learned on their own journey. In that sense, we call all be like them, even before we’re one of them.
Best of luck – you got this.