When it comes to the ins and outs of the publishing world, I am more or less a newbie (which is why I go to lots of conventions and attend panels to learn more about the trade). Sure, I have had a couple short stories published, but this is not quite the same as ascending the dizzying heights of having a novel come out.
Now, when I say, ‘having a novel come out’ I always thought that meant having it published by one of the big houses as an actual, physical book. I never even considered self-publishing online.
In the last ten or so years, however, self-publishing has really come into its own. While it used to be looked down on by the publishing fraternity as just another version of the vanity press, some very well-received writers have made their careers in the self-publishing world.
Self-publishing can also be a good way of getting edgy or different works out that the big publishing houses and bookshops do not know how to market or position (e.g. slipstream stuff, cross-genre stuff, stories with LGBT flavouring).
But just because you ‘can’ get your work out this way does not mean you necessarily should or that you are ready to go it alone. Self-publishing is not a license to bring ‘less skill’ or ‘less editing’ to bear and nor is it an ‘easy’ road. You have to put in just as much (if not more) work to get your stories noticed online because you will be making all of the marketing decisions on your own without a publishing house and because the online market is so crowded with ‘stuff’ already.
In April 2013, I attended a panel on “Self-Publishing” at the 52nd Natcon Convention in Canberra. The following contains some of the tips I gleaned and thought relevant to share.
1) Self-publishing is not the place to dump your ‘first draft’. Your work still has to be good.
– Have your work Beta-read by people with writing experience (i.e. other authors who are selling well and getting good reviews) whose opinions will be of value to you in the revision process (i.e. not your mum).
– If need be, pay for someone to edit your work (bad grammar and spelling will put off online readers just as much as slush readers).
– It does not hurt to get a manuscript assessment done.
2) ‘Make good art’ as Neil Gaiman would say. Work hard and gain skills as a writer before putting your stuff up. Your opening needs to be good, your characters need to be well-crafted and your plot needs to have loads of stuff happening and move at a good pace to entice the reader along to the end. If you can’t do this yet, don’t self-publish.
One recommendation from the panel was to make sure you have achieved: at least the three professional publications required to qualify as a member of SFWA and that you are at least getting ‘good rejections’ (“I love this, but … the work doesn’t fit our stable, we are over our budget for the year” and so on) from the publishing houses and/or genuine expressions of interest from agents and that you have done extra training like Clarion Workshops and courses and mentorships before considering yourself ‘ready’ to go it alone. Getting into SFWA at the very least provides some independent indication that you ‘can write’ for the market.
3) Make sure your product looks good and will catch the market’s eye.
– COVERS ARE VITAL, especially in the teen market.
– Covers must be professional and eye-catching and stand out in thumb-nail format.
– Covers must indicate the genre.
– E-covers tend to have bigger title fonts so they can be read even at thumbnail size.
– If you have a popular blog, a good tip might be to put up a couple of cover options for your online community and let them give you feedback on which cover they prefer.
– Make sure you format the book properly or get it formatted for ebook reading.
– The blurb must be enticing.
4) Get your work out there – let the market know you exist.
– Have an active blog. Be there. Be accessible. Be genuine.
– Have a website (often the website and blog are one – e.g. my WordPress site which you are now reading).
– Be contactable on Facebook.
– Consider Twitter.
– But if you use these so-called ‘marketing tools’ be a social contributor and a real person – don’t just use your accounts to sell at people. Don’t spam.
– Get your books onto other writer’s sites. If you can get your book onto E-reader News Today or Pixel of Ink or another such site with massive following, you can really increase your readership.
– Have deals (e.g. free offers) going on your blog from time to time.
5) E-publishing is really useful for books in a series. If you have a series, you can put out the first book (e.g. offer it on your blog) for free in order to gain sales for the second and third books.
6) Be aware that Amazon has a program called “KDP Select” where they reward you for giving Amazon exclusivity (higher % of the sales go to you). Here you can do ‘free book’ offers. This can be useful because the rush of downloads you get in that period help to get your book ‘ratings’ and also get you listed on the “people who bought this also bought …” which can last for many months after the free book deal, improving your sales down the track.
7) Learn from the online, self-publishing community. Kindleboards is an open forum about everything to do with self-publishing.
8) Amazon is not the only online market for e-books. Make sure your book goes up on all the online sellers who do not charge you a fee for the pleasure – e.g. Smashwords, Kobo, Barnes and Noble (note – Smashwords apparently gets you into Barnes and Noble), Apple (ibookstore), Kindlebooks.
– “Create-space” is part of Amazon. It offers paperbacks as well as ebooks. It apparently also sells to Book Depository.
– Be aware that Amazon has a program called “KDP Select” where they reward you for giving Amazon exclusivity (higher % of the sales go to you). Here you can do ‘free book’ offers. This can be useful because the rush of downloads you get in that period help get your book ‘ratings’ and also get you listed on the “people who bought this also bought …” which can last for many months after the free book deal, improving your sales down the track.
9) Never forget that you are ‘running a business’.
– Make sure you budget. If it’s going to cost you $1000 for a manuscript assessment and then another $300 for a cover, you need to question whether your final product and your marketing plan will make you at least that much back (if not in direct revenue, but at least in readership and sales for the ‘next volume’ of the book).
– Be aware of your tax obligations. Once your work is on Amazon, you are dealing with the US tax department and you need to know how much and who you are supposed to be paying. Amazon withholds tax that you have to get back if you are not a US citizen.
– Note: Kobo just deposits your money into your account which makes the tax stuff simpler.
– Find out if you need a business number (e.g. an ABN in Australia).
– If you have an ABN, you can claim a business EIN which makes the US tax stuff a lot more straight-forward (easier, apparently, than getting a US tax number).
10) Do not take advice from anyone. This is sort of a disclaimer, but it is also correct. E-publishing is in a state of flux and what is current now may not be in a mere 6 months. Keep researching your market and keep up to date with online trends to stay ahead of the curve.
11) Be aware that while online successes can translate into official publishing deals ala ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, the opposite can be true of short stories. Self-publishing is considered ‘publishing’ and most of the short story markets will not take work that has already appeared online. Be aware of this before just putting your new story up ‘on your blog’.
12) Also be aware of some of the e-publishing, “digital first” deals the big houses are offering. Some of these houses want the rights for as ‘long as a book is in print’, which in e-publishing could mean that the book is technically never out of print and that, even if the book is doing badly, you never get your rights returned to you. Make sure there is an expiry date on such international rights if you are going with a digital first imprint. Make sure you have a legal person (e.g. an agent if you have one) look over any deals when it comes to the publishing houses, large or small.
Thanks for reading – Shauna O’Meara.