Self-Publishing is a Last Resort.
No. To self-publish or operate as an Individual Publisher or an Indie, is often the best creative choice. Without the shackles of commercial pressure, genre-blending or your own personal genre, is the new kid on the block! The author retains global selling rights across all platforms and retains the majority share of any royalties. Most importantly, the author is in complete control of the entire process, from designing the cover to organising events, to advertising and pacing the release of new material. The more you invest of yourself the greater the opportunity for growth, development, and experience, not only as a writer through valuable on-line networking but in all aspects of the publishing world.
Depending on your technical skills, it’s quite possible to design your own covers and promotional material using a range of high quality software, some of which is accessible for free. Learning to format for ebooks and paperbacks cost nothing more than your time. If you make a mistake, fix it, learn from it, and move on. There are many publishing platforms out there now – to produce both ebooks and paperbacks – all of which are user-friendly and free. Print-on-demand allows an individual to invest in small quantities of paperbacks which are easily manageable from a financial point of view, and allow the author to either produce copies simply for their own use or order in sizeable quantities for shops and events.
However, not every author has the skill nor the inclination to want to deal with every aspect of publishing. Some authors find it enjoyable, some find it stressful. And it’s fair to point out that if you don’t have the necessary technical skills then of course, not every aspect of self-publishing is free. The material needs to be professionally edited, proofread, formatted and designed to a recognisable industry standard if you wish to compete with the traditional market and produce something to be proud of. There are many excellent, experienced freelance professionals working in the self-publishing sector to enable you to achieve this. The quality (both in terms of the writing and the book itself) of self-produced work can vary from mediocre, to a standard which is actually way above that of some small press publishers because quite often the editing and designing of your book is a bespoke, individual process. After this, it’s perfectly possible to approach libraries and independent book shops.
Beware of: Experts. There are plenty of swish looking websites and unscrupulous folk willing to take your money for advice and services offered, from editing to advertising, from special award badges for your book, endorsements, amazing reviews, to everything in-between. Don’t pay for anything – unless the service offered comes from a reputable source and you are happy with their examples. Ask around on the many forums available and choose carefully.
Self-Publishing is the same as Vanity Publishing.
No. Vanity Publishers have no selection criteria. Vanity publishing is a complete service to authors who have no wish to become involved with the nuts and bolts of producing a book as an independent, or perhaps they don’t possess the knowledge or inclination to send out endless applications to agents and traditional publishers. Maybe they’ve simply become worn down by rejection letters, and we all know how that can feel. Some flattery from an editor is all it needs to get you to sign on the dotted line…
You will more often than not relinquish all rights to the material. The author is expected to cover all costs out of their own pocket, usually upfront, and the publisher will collect the majority of the royalties on the book. It’s an expensive, often disappointing route – because quite simply the publisher has been paid for his trouble and has no further interest in the material as they’ve already made their profit – from the author! Vanity Publishers have no relationship with bookshops or suppliers.
Beware of: Huge costs (running into several thousands of pounds) and vague promises. Quite often these types of publisher come across as the real thing through cunning advertising (sometimes they refer to themselves as self-publishers).
A Good Book will be Published by a ‘Real’ Publisher.
Not necessarily. There is still the belief that agents and publishers secure the best material out there, and you may wish to try this route first. Lots of smaller publishers can be approached directly without the need for an agent to represent the author. This is where signing a contract can be confusing and in some cases, detrimental. However, a genuine publisher will never ask for a financial contribution towards producing your book. If they do, you could be dealing with a vanity press.
Traditional publishers are mostly interested in commercial fiction which fits neatly into a genre they are familiar with. This makes the job easier for them and less of a financial risk.
You will of course relinquish all rights to the material and the majority of the royalty payments will go first and foremost to your publisher. This is not necessarily a bad deal if the publisher is knowledgeable about the current market, is selling lots of books and is proactive in maintaining those sales. In a lot of cases though, this simply doesn’t happen. Publishers rarely promote consistently and effectively. The risk of taking on books that don’t sell isn’t much of a deal breaker to them because ebooks are remarkably easy to produce and who knows, your book just might take off without too much effort or investment from them. They can also control expenses by only publishing print versions on demand; exactly as per the self-publishing route, and many of them use the exact same platforms. The alternative to this is that you’ve negotiated a traditional ‘print-run’, in which case the publisher may be keener to recover those costs and work harder on your behalf to shift the copies. The finished product may well look exactly the same as a self-published book but will retail at a much higher cost because of course, the publisher needs to factor in his cut. In some cases, the print book may even be of inferior quality. You will probably be expected to pay for copies of your own book or to buy any stock at trade price, around 40% of the retail cover price.
Beware of: High expectations, grey hybrids and contracts which tie you in to several works, or years of commitment at a low rate of royalty. You won’t necessarily see your book in a major retailer on the high street for example, or in libraries. You may be expected to produce a novel every 3-6 months if the publisher is mostly concerned with commercial ebook sales in a current popular genre. They’ll want to catch the market trends and a steady stream of material will (hopefully) make money.
Some small presses are blending traditional methods with services approaching those required by the self-publisher. It’s perhaps a way of capturing everything which is going on in a fast moving, constantly changing market. The material may be better treated from an editorial point of view and usually the author will retain all selling rights, but at the end of the day it’s the author who is footing the bill and choices can be limited. Additional services such as offering an author a Facebook page is an example of how new and confused authors could be attracted to a ‘gold package’ when everything seems scary and complicated. Making a Facebook page for example, is simple and free, and yet in some cases, this is listed as a service. This hybrid type of publishing is often the sister arm of a reputable publishing company, encouraging authors to submit under the impression that the experience of the genuine publishing house will spill over into the self-financed version. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t… grey area?
Do I Need An Agent?
Not necessarily. You only need an agent if you intend to approach publishing companies who don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts and/or you wish someone to act on your behalf to wade through the legal jargon of a complicated contract. Bear in mind that around only 1% of manuscripts are selected in this way. An agent may be able to secure a good contract for you, but remember they take around 15% of whatever they negotiate. This could be well worth it if the agent has great connections and you have a great manuscript which everyone wants…
How Much Money Do You Make?
If you are looking to make money from your writing, then you may be shocked to discover that the profit on a paperback can be as low as £1. This is without factoring in the time spent writing the novel, paying for an editor, a cover designer and a formatter. This is based simply on the printing costs of a physical book. Nothing beats seeing your work in print, regardless of how you arrived at that point, but unless you’ve written a commercial best-seller and it’s handled by one of the ‘big six’ in publishing, then it’s unlikely you’ll make any cash from selling paperbacks.
This is why the ebook market is so lucrative and why lots of small presses have popped-up offering contracts for material. Some of them are pretty good, but an awful lot of them are best avoided. If you self-publish an ebook and it starts to sell, then you can make a reasonable return, especially if you have the technical know-how to produce the book file to a good standard and you’ve studied the market for trends. While some authors fail to break even, some make a reasonable living from writing, usually supplementing their income with author services or non-fiction publications. There is a multitude of levels in-between, depending on how much time and effort you are willing to invest, but there are no guarantees.
I don’t claim to be an expert on ebook sales, neither do I sell many thousands of copies; but I do receive a variety of emails relating to the subject, and I often spot frequently missed opportunities for sales and some rather more obvious reasons why books don’t sell.
EDITING. The single most important process of publishing a book is structural editing and proofreading. The lack of consistent, industry standard editing will kill sales in record time. Readers can forgive a smattering of minor mistakes throughout an 80,000 word novel, but if the first thing they see when they look inside the book sample are glaring grammatical errors – then there’s little chance they will buy. It’s a false economy to skip the editing process simply because your sister said it was ‘ok’. Or someone you met in a Facebook group said they’d edit the entire manuscript for £100. Only employ a recommended editor with a good track record and be aware there are many, many plausible fakes out there. Be super critical and don’t publish too soon.
COVER. The cover can and should work in a number of ways to help sell your book. Mostly it needs to match the content and the expectations of the genre – ie: not a photograph which you happen to like and may be related to the material in some vague way, but means absolutely nothing to a prospective reader on the other side of the world. Do some research and look at other books in your genre. Unless you have an eye for design, understand book marketing, and own the relevant software to be original and creative; pay someone who does. Of course, it’s perfectly possible to make your own cover with free software through Amazon’s publishing platform or something like Canva, but if the end result looks homemade – and you want to reach beyond friends and family – then consider the commercial impact.
FONT. Often overlooked, but the font is a vital bit of selling kit. Nothing screams homemade more than a bog-standard font scrawled across a third-rate cover image. If the cover and the font look third-rate, then the reader is fully entitled to presume that the content is much the same. Do the research: you will not find a loopy font on a cold-blooded thriller. Consider the impact of this and apply accordingly.
FORMATTING. If you can’t handle the formatting, then please pay someone who can. It might be the best story ever and perfectly well edited but if there are blank pages, irregular indents, or oversized margins, then after a while it just becomes too irritating to read. Your text needs to look consistent on a variety of screen sizes.
BRANDING. If you’ve got all the above in order then do also consider branding. If you write across different genres this can be difficult but covers which are easily recognisable as one of yours, do help follow-on sales – so at least consider keeping the font of your author name consistent. Four or five cross-genre books with variable cover styles are notoriously difficult to sell. Same applies to using more than one author or pen name. This is why traditional publishers like material which is easily branded to match their current list. It’s easier to market and sell, and the reader knows what to expect. More on branding here: https://janruth.com/2016/06/24/the-importance-of-branding/
SHORT LINKS. Every time you talk about your book across social media add the buy link! Potential readers will not go searching, and if you also use a pen name which is different to your social media persona, this can be an impossible task. Why make it so difficult and confusing? The social media audience has a very short attention span at the best of times. Make a short universal link – it’s so easy – and use it. I can’t recall the amount of times I’ve tried to find a book and given up because the author didn’t use a buy link and I couldn’t remember the exact pen name or the specific use of initials.
PRICE. Study the market and take note how much is free or priced at 99p. How much do you spend on ebooks? Personally, I’m cautious at anything over £1.99 if the author is unknown to me. It makes more sense to sell 10 books at 99p than one book at £2.99. Free books have lost their impact in raising visibility. Still useful if you’re offering the first in a series as a free download – which hopefully will attract readers to buy the next, and the next. But always price the first book in the series less than the sequel – as a loss-leader – not the other way about!
KINDLE SELECT, CATEGORIES & KEYWORDS. The Kindle Select programme (staying exclusive to Amazon) is worth considering, rather than spreading yourself too thin and being available on every other sales platform. Amazon Kindle remains the most popular so why not use this to your advantage – at least initially – and use the free promotional tools available. Select also means you can enroll in other programmes such as Kindle Unlimited. This allows readers unlimited access to books in the Select programme and for the author, pages read can earn as much – if not more – than those elusive sales. Experiment with categories on Amazon, the smaller ones are more likely to get your book noticed. Likewise the keywords – it’s worth doing some research, there are plenty of articles about keywords and which are trending and are currently effective
SOCIAL MEDIA & WEBSITES. Build a social media platform before you launch the book, not as an afterthought a few months later because ‘you really don’t do promoting, advertising, Twitter, or all that stuff…’ Your ebook is an internet-based product which is targeted at an internet-based audience who own an e-reader and therefore browse the internet for their next read. A commercial page – use your author name for this, not your book title – on Facebook and a website are both worth having because they are public sites and allow readers to discover you. They will not discover you via a personal Facebook profile. A website is more static – a ‘go to’ place to locate the books and hit that universal buy-link. Keep it clean and simple. Get rid of the dancing cats, change the white text on a black background to the other way about, and fix the links that don’t work.
REVIEWS. Reviews do help to sell books in that they increase customer confidence in the product. Approach book bloggers and reviewers who are interested in your material and whose opinions carry some weight; they will also have a good presence across social media. Don’t approach other authors or send multiple requests through Messenger to all your friends begging for reviews. And the other biggie: don’t respond to negative reviews in public. Nothing looks worse to a prospective reader than to witness an angry response to someone who didn’t enjoy your book. They are entitled to their opinion and if it’s malicious then interacting in any way will add fuel to the fire. There are plenty of people who will enjoy a good to-and-fro at your expense. Not only does it look desperately unprofessional to join in, but it’s wise to remember that reviews are not directed towards the author. Neither are they an easy, cheap critique service – they are there to help other prospective readers decide if they might enjoy the book. Only take them to heart if there are several reviews flagging the same issue. And then… get it fixed.
BLOGGING & NEWSLETTERS. The clue is in the title… these are not meant to be hard-sell sales platforms. Blogs are a good way to build a slow but sure fanbase, but your blog needs original and interesting content. Write articles you can share across social media and build followers. I’ve written some equitation-based fiction so blogging about horses brings me into contact with the right audience. And if you cannot produce engaging, interesting, and informative content on a regular basis, don’t start a newsletter. Sending advertising copy through email disguised as a newsletter is SPAM.
MARKET TRENDS. Are you writing fiction the public are looking to read? If it’s a complicated contemporary romance set in Newcastle and your main female character is aged 45, it won’t sell as well as a formula romance set in Cornwall with a heroine aged 25; even if your book is more original and better executed. Sadly, this is the way commercial sales and marketing works for the big guys, and the independent publisher can either try and swim with the mass-market tide, or accept that writing to their own agenda and enjoying creative freedom will always produce books which are more of a struggle to sell.
What’s killing the indie author? Writers are sensitive souls often plagued by despondency, worn down by mindless promotion, and the inability to find a reason to not write. So I wrote this…