Don’t Do It Yourself

November 14, 2019 § 11 Comments

A book in your hand, ready to sell. The satisfaction of seeing your memoir in print. A calling card at conferences. Sweet, sweet profit.

It’s the siren song of self-publishing, and it’s calling you.

Leap over the gatekeepers! Look at all the crap they publish every year!

How many more celebrity tell-alls do we need?

Good writing should be what counts!

Sometimes it feels like bad or even just average writing is published every day while one’s own quality work goes begging. We worry that it’s all about who you know—and it partly is. Whether we have an MFA—and it partly is. Whether we’re already famous—and it definitely is. If you’ve truly “done the work,” why wait for someone else’s permission to live the dream? Especially if you’re sitting on a stack of query rejections.

But the magic combination of quality and marketability that makes a memoir sellable to a traditional publisher is also the key to self-publishing success.

It’s very, very hard to sell a self-published memoir without a clear hook and a specific reader demographic. (For fiction, books must fit a narrow genre that sells ebooks like mad). Authors may self-publish because they believe “the establishment” is overlooking their vast talent or snobbishly closing the doors to success. But traditional publishing wants to make money. If a book is likely to make money, the establishment will buy it and try their best to sell it. Meanwhile, presses large and small buy quite a few brilliantly written, medium-marketable books, hoping sales will surprise them as they enjoy the warm glow of nurturing new talent. Tremendously marketable books may not be great from a literary standpoint—but saying a popular, badly-written book is a bad thing is like insisting everyone finish their broccoli before having ice cream. Financially, every ghostwritten celebrity memoir keeps afloat a whole raft of mid-level authors.

Maybe agents and publishers focus too much on “platform.” Why should you have to be a speaker or a widely-quoted expert or write op-eds or be a social-media star? Can’t you just write a good book? But the paradox is that if your book is truly fresh, well-written and strong enough to sell without platform, agents and publishers will snap you up. The horrible, unspoken second part of “sorry, you don’t have enough platform” is “and your book isn’t groundbreaking enough to spur me to overcome that challenge.”

Excellent and painstaking writers often miss that crucial variable, and it’s heartbreaking to pour tremendous time and effort into an unsellable book. And unless you hit big—50,000+ copies sold—self-publishing poisons your numbers. Low previous sales make it considerably harder to traditionally publish later; you also spend the “debut” excitement that sometimes sells a book.

A publishing deal is a corporate investment in your career, an endorsement that tells readers, “We bought this book and you should, too.” True, publishers aren’t bringing as much sales clout to the table as they used to. But if you’re not ready to hustle for your traditionally published book, self-publishing isn’t going to help.

Flying solo might still be right for you. Consider:

  • Do you have the money/skills to make a professional cover that fits the genre and serves as clickbait? Do you have the judgment to let your favorite image go in favor of a cover that sells books?
  • Do you have the money/skills to design the book interior and handle ebook conversions to multiple formats?
  • Do you have substantial personal clout in a field or organization strongly and specifically interested in your book, with 5000+ members who will purchase your books and evangelize on your behalf?
  • Do you have 10-20 hours a week to follow up on press releases, place supporting articles in mass media, chase interviews, and urge friends, family and strangers to review your book on Amazon and Goodreads?
  • Do you have the money/skills to build a website with a secure e-commerce portal?
  • Can you pay a PR person to do some of this stuff, or put in another 10 hours a week?
  • Will you wholesale to bookstores at the standard discount, even though intuition screams “why do I have to give up another $2/copy?”

There’s more—a lot more—to successful self-publishing, but contemplating this list is a good start.

The publishing world is not full of cruel gatekeepers, but people who genuinely value beautiful work and also need to make a buck. Very few writers create work of transcendent beauty surpassing the need for clear connection to an existing market. Ask yourself, is this the best book I can write? Do I know exactly who will want to read it? Do I have a realistic and extensive plan to reach those people? For both traditional and self-publishing, the gate is only open when the answer is yes, yes, yes.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor and leads the Rebirth Your Book writing retreats. Join her in Dubai Feb 26-March 4, or with Dinty W. Moore in Costa Rica May 18-24. Or follow her adventures in writing on Instagram.

Five Steps to Self-Publish a Quality Book

July 9, 2019 § 9 Comments

By Mandy Wallace

Like most people, I’m hesitant to get excited about a self-published book before seeing its quality.

Sure, subpar books occasionally squeak through the gates of traditional publishing. When they do, we shrug and say ‘it happens.’ But when we pick up a lackluster self-published work, we roll our eyes and say ‘of course.’ There’s a vetting process behind traditional publishing—teams of experienced, full-time employees green-lighting each book—making books from the traditional model more likely to hit the markers of professionalism readers expect.

But these larger teams and distribution networks make for slower publication timelines and smaller royalties.

I created my self-published book, Landing Your First Publication, as a tool for new writers in my community at Write or Die. I wanted the book out there helping them faster than it ever could through traditional routes (if a traditional publisher even picked it up).

I didn’t know it was destined to become the main text for a college creative writing classroom.

But looking back, I made a number of decisions while creating Landing Your First Publication that helped it hit markers readers consciously and unconsciously look for. Since then, I’ve noticed both traditional publishers and highly successful self-published authors following a similar process to ensure a quality book.

These five steps had the greatest impact:

01 Survey Readers

Having direct access to my target readers through my online platform gave me insight into what they sought in a writing instruction book. Many were overwhelmed by conflicting advice. Questions, comments and survey answers about cover letter “rules,” grammar technicalities, writer’s block, and issues like developing voice and style revealed they felt intimidated by the theories and storytelling techniques in existing writing references. Many were looking for a way—or an excuse—to write what they felt excited to write about.

In response, I approached writing as an exercise of curiosity and exploration rather than “work.” I used writing prompts, worksheets, and submissions trackers to make writing more approachable.

02 Invite Beta Reader Feedback

Rounds of beta reader feedback can function like market research for self-publishing authors. It was especially important to select beta readers from or close to my book’s target audience. Writers of different skill levels have different needs. Readers from a different skill level were likely to produce feedback that didn’t serve the new and blocked writers I want my book to help.

I sent surveys to these beta readers with questions designed to elicit specific, honest feedback. Phrasing was important. Asking “This book would be a lot better if…” and “If I really, really had to complain about something in this book, it would be…” elicits more helpful feedback than questions like “was this book helpful?” or “what did you like about this book?”

Had I known the book would end up in front of so many creative writing students or if it had been a more complex project, I would have invested even more time into beta reader rounds with more readers invited from my platform’s email list.

03 Hire a Professional Editor

(Because even professional editors need help editing their work.)

Landing Your First Publication went through multiple rounds of editing, and still those pesky little typos and errors popped up during the review and book launch phases. In my editor’s defense, I made changes to the “finished” manuscript as feedback filtered in, leaving her pristine edits open to errors. I reassure myself that even traditionally published works carry the inevitable typo. We’re all human.

But like traditional publishers, I still worked to get my text as close to perfect as possible through professional edits and multiple points of feedback.

04 Adhere to Cover and Interior Book Design Best Practices

I was genuinely excited to learn about book design. I told myself I had plenty of experience from designing my author platform website and graphics. How hard could it be to design a book?

Cue facepalm.

I purchased an InDesign subscription, pored over the designs of books on my shelves, and unearthed guides from successful self-published authors. I learned about ISBNs and barcodes and that many fonts are copyrighted and can’t be used in a book sold for profit. And while traditional publishers have pre-existing relationships with book reviewers, Publisher’s Weekly might review a self-published book submitted through their Booklife arm.

Even with all this foreknowledge, I made so many mistakes  I had to redo the book design at least three times. From too-small margins to cover-spine misalignments and font-based icons that refused to embed, this is why many self-published authors outsource to professional book and cover designers. The time saved is often worth the cost.

05 Ask for Peer Reviews from The Book Launch Team

Besides the obvious promotional boost a book launch team supports, many of the reviewers and peers who read ARCs of Landing Your First Publication came back with comments and feedback that improved the book. A few caught typos, too.

It was amazing to work with people who cared so much about my baby project and wanted to help it succeed. The self-publishing process reflects what’s true of anything that helps people or creates an impact: you can’t do it alone.

The difference I see between traditional and self-publishing, and between self-published books that succeed and those that don’t, is the community behind the book. Self-publishing may be the leaner model, but it isn’t a loner model. The way to ensure a high quality self-published book is not to do it by yourself.

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Mandy Wallace shares writing tips, resources, and industry interviews with the 20k monthly readers of Write or Die, named one of the 100 Best Websites for Writers. Her book, Landing Your First Publication: The Writing Prompts + Publication Strategy for Writers Who Refuse to Rely on Luck, is available on Amazon.

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