4 Things You Can’t Not Know Before You Self-Publish

This post first appeared on Margot’s blog, Wordmelon

Whenever I have a client who’s self-publishing, especially those who are just dipping their toe into the world of publishing for the first time, there is a host of information I want them to know. I can’t communicate all of it, but here’s what you can’t not know:

  1. Editing Process

When a contracted manuscript is submitted to a traditional publisher, the process will typically involve:

  • One or two rounds of developmental editing
  • A round of copy editing
  • Several meticulous rounds of proofreading, looking for the tiniest errors: an extra space after a period, a “zero” that’s really a capital “O,” or a “there” instead of a “their.”

Readers have been trained to expect an error-free product, and even a few errors can cause the reader to lose confidence in the book, and set it down. While this rigorous level of precision isn’t always possible when self-publishing, your readers will be best-served if you put this important work into your book up front.

  1. Book Cover

Whether readers will be browsing through a bookstore, scrolling through thumbnail images on Amazon, or buying from a merch table, the cover matters. It both signals what’s inside and whether what’s inside has value for the reader. Even if you have the technical skills to create a cover using your photo editing software, don’t. Resist the urge. There are tried and true principles relating to images, colors, font styles, and font sizes that make for great covers. Let a professional design the cover of your book.

  1. Book Design

Have you ever noticed that the inside of a traditionally published book, all the pages of content, have been designed? Care and attention have been given to the precise measurements of margins, as well as the size and shape of fonts in the text, chapter titles, headers and subheads. None of this is accidental. Each choice was made to serve the book and serve the reader. Although certain independent publishing options might aid you with book design, it’s up to you to ensure that nothing about the design creates a barrier to a reader reading your book.

  1. Books Are Hard to Sell

Before you sink your own dollars into publishing a book, have a plan for how you will market and distribute the book to your target audience. Don’t just throw it up at Amazon with millions of other books and hope for the best. You’ve been warned.

The purpose of your book is to serve the reader, and a well-written book with a sharp design does that. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.

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When is it Good to Indie Publish?

When I first began going to writers conferences around 2003, vanity publishing (where you pay someone to produce your book) was considered only a dire writer’s avenue to get his poorly written manuscript to the public. These novels were not given any credit by publishing gatekeepers (such as editors, agents and book reviewers.)

PublishVanity publishing morphed into several forms to what is now the indie industry. There are still vanity publishers who will take your money and produce your book. However, indie publishing is where the author becomes publisher– hiring freelance people for all facets of book production but they remain in control of their product.

Over a decade later and the attitude surrounding indie publishing has changed a lot. Though some still hold the above attitude, it is diminishing, and self-publishing is no longer considered the last nail in a writer-wanting-to-be-an-author coffin.

A few years ago, I attended a talk given by well respected literary agent Rachelle Gardner, a self-published author herself whose book highlights traditional vs self-publishing. She gave a talk touting some of the benefits of pursuing self-publishing and in some instances considered it a bonus to an author’s career.

What?!? Yes, that screeching sound was both my feet hitting the brake pedal.

The dizzying pace of these changing attitudes in publishing can leave an author scratching his/her head.

Personally, I’ve seen several close friends pursue indie publishing and have moderate success. By this I mean they earned back the money they invested in preparing the manuscript (for editing, the book cover and interior design) and perhaps have earned a couple of thousand dollars. A smaller minority had great success and went on to further get traditional publishing contracts.

What I’ve determined is that there is a good time and place to consider indie publishing as an author, and here are some of those situations to consider.

1. You have a polished manuscript but it can’t find a home with a publisher. First, I want to qualify what I mean by a polished manuscript. This is much, much more than finishing a rough draft that your mother and friends slobber over. They’re not good book critics because they love you and don’t want to hurt your feelings. It means that it’s been professionally edited, at least twenty people outside of family (and are familiar with books, genre, and good writing) love it, and maybe your agent even shopped it around but it couldn’t find a home. An even better indicator of this caliber of manuscript is that it has finaled in a well-respected writing contest like the Genesis Contest sponsored by ACFW. It takes six to ten years to learn the writing craft and a couple of written books under your belt to fit this definition.

2. There will be a delay in books releasing between your traditional publishing contracts. What I’ve heard and read is that it also takes six to ten years to build a readership. During that time frame, it’s wise to have a book releasing no longer than once a year. Some authors do more—some do less but you want a predictable stream of novels to keep readers’ interest piqued.

3. You are a control freak. Creatives like control over their product. Publishing is not that way. It is a collaborative effort so some of what you love about your creation is going to change. Some people enjoy all aspects of the book publishing process and want to have final say over every aspect—going strictly with their vision. Self-publishing is the best venue for the author to maintain total control. You also have to front all the cost and carry the entire burden as well for marketing and distribution.

4. You want to maintain your rights. When you sign a traditional publishing contract, your book is no longer really yours—in a sense. The publisher owns it in certain formats (maybe even all formats) and most often times will have clauses in your contract on other avenues they have the option to pursue—like hard cover large print rights. Some authors don’t want to give this up but then, as in the above, you’ll also be the one to try and negotiate selling the rights in different formats if you choose.

5. You want to write in other genres. Most often, an agent and traditional publisher are going to encourage you to stick with one genre but few authors I know really want to do that for their entire writing career. These might be good novels to self-publish under a pen name. Even this attitude is changing as well. Many authors I know are writing in multiple genres using the same name and don’t seem to be suffering for it.

6. You want to build volume more quickly to increase income. The flip side of building a readership is how much material you have to offer. When my first novel released, if the reader loved it, there was nothing else for them to read. Now, if they love any one of my books—they have at least two others to choose from. The more books you have, the more options a reader will have to choose and buy another book of yours to read—thus increasing your potential earning income.

What do you think? Have you indie published? Did you consider a success? Would you do it again?

This blog post first appeared at Novel Rocket. Hope you’ll check their blog out!

Don’t Sabotage Your Writing/Speaking Career

WordServe Water Cooler is pleased to host this excellent article by James N. Watkins.

Welcome, James!

I’ve been editing professionally since 1972. (Of course, I started when I was five!) I’ve seen just about everything: Cover letters that said, “God dictated this article to me. I don’t even know what it means.” Submissions from aliens: the extraterrestrial kind. Envelopes spray-painted gold, which I assume was intended to make them stand out from all the plain old white envelopes. Hand-written submissions on lined paper. And now in the age of word-processing with 400 fonts, submissions that look like ransom notes.

So, here are some ways to avoid sabotaging your writing/speaking career—in no particular order.

1. UNPROFESSIONAL EMAIL ADDRESS

If you’re going to be a professional writer/speaker, you need a professional-sounding email address. Two of the worst I’ve seen: snugglebunny77@yahoo.com and—I’m not making this up—wordwhore@hotmail.com. Even yahoo.com, gmail.com, and hotmail.com strike this grumpy old editor as a bit unprofessional. Get a domain name and a host that will allow you to use that as your email address. For example, jim @ jameswatkins.com actually goes to my yahoo account, but it’s masked so all you see is the domain name.

2. UNPROFESSIONAL FACEBOOK AND TWITTER POSTS

You’ll probably want a Facebook account for only your family and close friends and then one separate for your professional presence.

Your followers don’t want to know what you’re fixing for dinner unless you’re writing gourmet cook books. And unless your brand is “Cat Whisperer,” I don’t want to see pictures of your adorable kitties. (And having more than five cats qualifies you as “crazy cat lady.”) Make sure every post provides value to your readers and fits with your “brand” (See point 5).

3. NO WEB PRESENCE, UNPROFESSIONAL WEB PRESENCE

When your book proposal comes before the pub board, the first thing the editors and marketing minions do—who are surgically attached to their laptops and smart phones—is go to google.com and type in your name. If you don’t show up, you don’t exist! And if you don’t exist, you don’t get a contract. It is absolutely necessary that you have a Web site, blog, Facebook and Twitter accounts online.

But having no presence may be better than having an unprofessional presence! With WordPress.com and Blogger.com anyone can have a free blog (Web log). The bad news is many of templates offered don’t appear to this grumpy old editor as professional: animated .gifs, cutesy art work, kitties, etc. etc.

Your Web presence is a determining factor in whether a publisher will give your proposal further consideration or a conference director will consider you as a speaker. Spend—no INVEST—in professional help in creating a professional-looking site. And make sure you have a professional edit the copy.

4. UNPROFESSIONAL BUSINESS CARDS

Just because you’re a Christian writer doesn’t mean your business cards and Web site must have a cross, dove, empty tomb or—if you’re Charismatic—tongues of fire. Remember the KISS principle. Keep it simple, saints!

And including “Professional Writer” makes me suspect. Would you go to a “Professional Brain Surgeon”?! I don’t think so! (What is he or she trying to prove?)

5. NOT BEING “BRANDED”

Ouch! That sounds painful, but “branding” is a buzz word in the business and publishing world.

Basically, branding is what readers and audiences expect when they see your name on a book cover or on a conference brochure. You can’t be all things to all people, so do some soul-searching and discover your unique role in the writing/speaking arena.

My brand—for articles, books, Web site, speaking engagements, convenience store grand openings—is “Hope and Humor.” (www.hopeandhumor.org). So whether I’m writing, speaking or blogging, people expect hope and humor. (So writing bloody murder mysteries would totally massacre—pun intended—my brand.)

What does your audience (or “tribe”) expect? Be specific and then deliver on your brand.

6. “FREE” PUBLISHING THAT COSTS YOU

Services, like www.lulu.com and www.createspace.com, offer free e-book and print-on-demand publishing services. (Everyone loves free!) You simply upload your Word document and post your homemade cover and you can have your book as an e-book on amazon in a few hours and your paperback or hardcover book on your doorstep within the week. And you only pay for the actual wholesale price of the books. What a deal. It is a deal IF and ONLY IF . . .

. . . you have it professionally edited (and not by your English teacher cousin). If your online or in-print presence is filled with errors, it can ruin your writing career.

. . . you have your cover professionally designed (and not by your sister-in-law who happens to own Adobe Illustrator—unless she’s working with it professionally.) An amateurish cover, again, can ruin your writing career—or at least book sales.

Please. Please. Please, take this warning to heart. I see so many “self-published” books that just scream AMATEUR! That free service can cost you your reputation.

And if you’re investing your hard-earned money in one of the hundreds of self-publishers out there, please read these additional warnings. (There are hundreds of self-publishers who are amateurs at best and scam artists at worst.)

7. HAVING A “REPUTATION”

Christian publishing is a relative small club. Editors meet regularly at conferences and professional meetings, and we talk about writers and speakers. Believe me, we know who the people are who committing professional suicide by being unprofessional, “high maintenance,” telling off editors who don’t appreciate their brilliant talent, missing deadlines and burning “bridges.” And speakers with “prima donna” complexes by demanding special treatment also can sink under the weight of their bad reputations.

There are many more such as playing the God card: “God told me to write this.” But seven sounds like a biblical number. And by being aware of these, you’ll protect your good name as a writer/speaker.

To find out more about James, please visit the links. (c) 2012 James Watkins (www.jameswatkins.com) for American Christian Writers (www.acwriters.com).

What is “Good Enough”?

just got back from the American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) conference in Dallas. This is an annual event and is the largest gathering of Christian fiction writers anywhere. Close to seven hundred (that’s right– a reverse 007!) writers attended. I know because my good friend’s name ends with a Zw, and she was 688/688.

Amazing.

While there, I attended a talk given by a MAJOR Christian publisher about a relatively large survey they did on Christian fiction readers. Don’t quote me, but the survey included over 200,000 participants and focus groups were conducted in three large cities. Just to say a lot of people participated–not just me and Grandpa Joe.

Since many of you may be salivating over some of those results, I’ll share a few here. The largest categories selling are: #1 Amish (shouldn’t be a surprise, just look at any CBD catalog and they are leading by 5-10 pages), #2 Mystery/Suspense/Thriller (my eyes glazed over with excitement right here!) ,and #3 Historical Romance. The romance categories were split among three genres: Contemporary Romance, Historical Romance, and Romantic Suspense so if all three were lumped together, the romance category may have had a higher overall percentage.

They asked “what would you like to see more of in Christian Fiction?” and the intriguing answer there was gritty is okay. Not everything needs to be wrapped up in a pretty bow at the end. Dangling questions are okay.

What surprised me was when one of the presenters said, “Should we move away from highly curated content to just good enough content?”

To be honest that floored me–in a bad way.

What is the purpose of a traditional publishing house? Some say they are gatekeepers. I like to view them more as museum curators. What is the benefit of having a museum curator? It’s so that my seven-year-old’s finger art isn’t next to Rembrandt. That when you pay your money, in the form of a museum ticket or as a book on the shelf, you know someone somewhere who gets exposed to LOTS of art and books picked the very best ones. And you’ll be getting your money’s worth.

Are there some self-published authors who are putting out high quality novels? Yes, absolutely. Are they the majority? No. If we are honest, they are not.

Can you buy a horrible, traditionally published novel? Yes, but it should be edited to near perfection. That’s the other part you pay for.

Proof, my debut medical thriller, went through four rounds of edits. Are there typos–yes. But I can guarantee there are fewer in the whole novel than in the first chapter of a few self-published novels I’ve started to read.

What disturbs me is when a curator/publisher says perhaps we don’t need as many editing runs. Perhaps “good enough” is okay for the masses. They won’t notice the difference anyway. Those are my words–not hers.

But isn’t that the implication? There are so many “so-so” things out there that we really don’t need to be consumed with quality anymore?

To me the quality of the editing is the one thing differentiating traditional and self-published books in many cases. So, if that’s gone, the strive to put the best product out there–what will be the difference then?

Will traditional publishers actually place the last nail in their own coffin if they adopt such an attitude?

What do you think? If you’re published, do you think there are too many editing rounds? Would fewer be better? How should traditional publishers continue to offer value in ways other than editing?

From Self-Published to Contracted Author (In Ten Thousand Easy Steps)

Five years ago, when I attended a Harvard University writers’ workshop for medical doctors, I was one of the few in attendance who actually had an edited, polished, pitch-ready manuscript in hand. But, still, I left that meeting with no agent and no publishing contract. The reason is I didn’t have a media platform.

Right or wrong, after that meeting, I decided to self-publish. I figured it would be easier to build my platform once I had a tangible book in-hand, and the fastest way to turn my manuscript into a tangible book would be via self-publishing. I thought, “I can always sell my book to the publisher later, if it succeeds,” and “How hard could it be to self-publish and succeed?” Little did I know how much work the whole venture would entail.

Over the following year, I hired freelance editors and artists to tweak my book into publishing house quality. I even started my own publishing LLC, so I could print my books via Lightning Source, Inc. and get them into the warehouses of the major distributors like Ingram and Baker&Taylor.

Next, came the marketing. Ugh! Being that I had no contacts in the media, I still don’t understand how I landed those first few radio and TV interviews. Okay…I confess. Maybe it had to do with me calling the stations and saying, “Hello. This is Dr. Rita Hancock. I need to leave a message for [the producer’s name], so please connect me to her voice mail.” It’s not my fault if the receptionist put me through because she thought I was calling to leave pregnancy test results. It’s not like I implied that exactly.

During this platform-building year, I also built my book’s website and online interactive support forum and began sending out monthly newsletters, answering questions on “Ask the Expert” websites, and utilizing pay per click advertising to drive traffic to my website.

Eventually, thanks to the platform-building, I landed both an excellent agent and a contract with a bona fide publisher. However, what came next utterly shocked and disappointed me. I didn’t yet know the adage “The top 20% of the authors get 80% of the marketing dollars.” Being a newbie author, I was left almost completely on my own to market. In a sense, it was “do or die” for my writing career. So, over the subsequent few years, refusing to “die,” I redoubled my efforts and took media training classes, learned how to write press releases, secured book endorsements, cross-promoted with other Christian authors, and built up my presence in social media like Facebook and Twitter.

I hoped that through these continued efforts, I would eventually be in the top 20% on some publisher’s author list—if not on my first book, maybe on my second, and, if not with my first publisher, maybe with a different publisher. And that’s exactly what happened. One day, during a conference call over my second book, I heard the publisher say what sounded like music to my ears. “Dr. Hancock, we’re prepared to put a lot of money and a lot of energy into promoting your next book.” Amazing! All that hard work finally paid off, and it took only ten thousand easy steps to get there.

What steps are you willing to take to promote your book?

Ebooks: To Create or Not Create

A lot of WordServe authors have asked me about ebooks lately. In fact, with the digital age continuing to progress with new technologies, many who don’t have an agent or a publisher or a book wonder whether they should take that leap. While you (and your agent if you have one) ultimately get to decide whether or not to self-publish, I thought I would offer a few tips that might help you during your decision-making process.

  1. Spend Money on the Cover. If you have decided to publish an ebook, congratulations! Now, make sure that you do it right. Don’t try to design the cover yourself if you have limited or no experience in graphic design. Go on Craigslist or post a flyer on your local college’s graphic design program bulletin board. A starving student would love to design the cover of your book for probably half to a third of the cost that you would spend on a traditional graphic artist. Of course, if you have the money and decide to spend it, then hire a professional. Either way, make sure that the cover of your ebook looks as well-designed as a traditionally published book.
  2. You’re Hired! When you create an ebook, you may not just sit back and watch your rankings grow every day. Instead, you just became your own boss at your new sales company. You need to call several people a day to ask if they will review and like your book. Chances are about half (or less) of the people that you reach out to will actually follow through with their commitment, so the more people with whom you connect, the better. Your contact list should also include local celebrities, well-known bloggers, local radio hosts—anyone you can think of who has a strong sphere of influence (sorry, your Mom and Grandma don’t cut it). Those people can reach out to even more people without you even trying.
  3. Invest in InDesign. Numerous software programs create ebooks. However, most people recognize the high quality of InDesign. It does take a bit of a learning curve, though, so if you have the gumption, watch as many tutorial videos as you need and start learning yourself. I did this, and I moved along pretty quickly once I understood the basic premise of ebook creating in InDesign. If you need a more hands-on learning approach, then check into classes at your local library (usually free!). Or, again, you can always stop by your local community college and ask for directions to the graphic design school. For only a couple hundred bucks, you will receive a nice tutorial in InDesign, and your starving college student will receive more than a few nights of entertainment at Buffalo Wild Wings.
  4. Don’t Do Anything Stupid. Often writers get so excited about the prospect of self-publishing that they sell their soul to the self-publishing devil. You have all heard about “publishing” companies that offer to publish your book for a fee. At the completely awful soul-sucking companies, you get a worse cover design than if you would have created it yourself. However, legitimate self-publishing companies do exist. You still have to pay, but they offer valid services. One of my favorite, Dog Ear Publishing, offers several great self-publishing options. They also offer editorial services with comparable prices. Of course, you still have to do your research before you invest in any self-publishing company to make sure it fits well with you and your book.
  5. Read the Well-Fed Self-Publisher by Peter Bowerman. It has a ton of great resources. Seriously, even if you completely ignore all of my advice above, please go read Peter’s book. You will not be disappointed.

Whatever you decide, enjoy the publishing process. Become involved in marketing. Continue blogging. Work on enhancing your Facebook fan page. Write for magazines. Book speaking engagements. Oh, that sounds a lot like traditional publishing? Well, yeah. Whether you traditionally publish or self-publish, you need to make sure that you market yourself.

So, are you looking into the possibility of self-publishing a book or a promotional device for your book? What steps have you taken in that direction? What fears hold you back from moving forward with self-publishing?

How EBooks Can Complement Your Traditional Writing

Most authors (or soon-to-be authors) think of themselves purely as creators of old-school books. But as the publishing landscape changes, we have an increasing number of opportunities to use our story-telling skills – including via ebooks.

When I say “ebook,” I don’t mean a digital version of your traditionally published book, nor a digital version of your self-published book. I’m talking about the kind of informational ebooks that live only online.

These ebooks are typically shorter than traditional books, and they’re often nonfiction, the self-help variety. You can sell them through Amazon, but many creators (like me) choose to sell them through their own website instead.

Before you pooh-pooh this avenue for your writing, recognize that creating ebooks can boost your writing career in ways traditional books can’t. That means if you delve into ebooks at the same time as traditional publishing, the two pursuits can play off each other.

Here are three ways creating ebooks can boost your traditional writing career:

1. Make money to support your writing habit

We all know publishers aren’t handing out huge advances lately. Creating digital products can help you bridge the financial gap between books. Here’s why: When you self-publish digitally, you keep all the profits. And overhead is low because there’s no physical product. Here’s what I paid to create my newest digital guide:

  • $450 for edits
  • $100 for postcards to bring to speaking gigs (optional)
  • $5/month for ejunkie, the e-commerce system I use to sell the guide
  • PayPal fees (because buyers pay me through PayPal)

Not so shabby, huh? And perhaps the best part is that every time you want to offer your digital product to a blog for review, it costs you nothing. Rather than eating the cost of a physical book, you simply email them the digital file.

EBooks also have a higher price point than traditional books. For example, my guide How to Build a Part-Time Social Media Business sells for $24. Since neither a publisher nor a distributor (I’m my own distributor) take a cut, that means $24 in my pocket every time I sell a guide. I’ve sold more than 125 since launching the guide two months ago.

2. Attract people who might want to read your traditionally published book

If your digital products are related to your overall writing pursuits, they can help you build an audience for your traditional books.

Here’s what I mean: My newest guide, How to Take a Career Break to Travel, is directly related to my travel memoir about backpacking solo through Africa (which Rachelle is preparing to pitch to publishers). Essentially, my guide is a complement to my memoir.

Yet because I’m publishing the guide myself, I’m able to get it out there before my (hopefully) traditional book. And guess what? The people who read my guide will likely be the same target market for my book. Not only will this help people find out about me (and hopefully subscribe to my newsletter or blog) before my book comes out, I’ve gone so far as to include a note about my upcoming travel memoir inside the guide.

In other words, this guide is oh-so-subtle marketing for my memoir.

3. Drive more traffic to your blog

Since I launched my first eguide, traffic to my site has increased dramatically. I’m now at 15,000+ hits/month mark Rachelle mentioned in her recent post about building platform.

Selling an eguide boosts traffic for several reasons:

  • People are visiting my blog to check out my guide (and maybe buy it!)
  • Some of those new visitors realized they like my blog, so they bookmarked it or subscribed and visited again later, maybe even daily
  • Guest posts I’ve written for sites with big audiences (like Mashable) with the goal of promoting my guide have brought lots of new visitors my way

All of those eyes on my website will help me sell my book to a publisher and sell my traditionally published book to readers.

Have you considered wading into ebook territory? If you have questions, I’m happy to answer based on my experience.

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