There’s been a lot of brouhaha about self-publishing lately, with the success stories of Joe Konrath, Barry Eisler, Amanda Hocking, and John Locke being tossed around the Internet like a wedding dance video. But is self-publishing for you? Back in June, when I met with Smashwords founder Mark Coker, he had recently been quoted in the Washington Post saying, “We have less than 50 people who are making more than $50,000 per year. We have a lot who don’t sell a single book.” One author, whose income was quoted in an SF Gate article as being “closer in sales to the average Smashwords author than he is to a Hocking or [Stephanie] McAfee,” said he made about $500 per quarter, or about $2000 a year. Not exactly millions. But those numbers are rising, and more and more authors—either because they’ve had it with rejections from agents and publishers or because they want full control over their books—are going the e-book route. If you think you’re ready to take the plunge, here are ten steps you need to follow in order to become an e-author success.
1. Write a damn good book.
No matter how much marketing you do, your book will not sell if it’s not well written. Join a writer’s group, find a critique partner, enroll in an MFA program, attend writers’ conferences and retreats—do whatever you have to do to learn your craft and write, write, write.
2. Be prepared to work your arse off.
You think it’s difficult to keep up with Twitter and Facebook and blogging now? Self-pubbed authors are doing triple what most of us are doing. Here are a few blog posts about how much work goes into self-publishing (Thanks to Nathan Bransford for these links.)
First we have Cory Doctorow who, after traditionally publishing several books, decided to self-publish his collection of short stories. “I dramatically underestimated how much work this would be. It’s not impossible, and it’s not horrible work – it’s challenging, exciting stuff, but it’s incredibly time consuming and it can be tough (and expensive).”
Next we have Amanda Hocking on why she decided to go with a traditional publisher after her mega-success as a self-published author. In addition to wanting to spend less time marketing and more time writing, Hocking said in a recent blog post: “With St. Martin’s, I would be able to produce a better quality product that would be more accessible to readers, and I would have the support of a house behind me to help take of some of the strain I’ve been under so I can focus on writing more books.”
And finally, author and former literary agent Nathan Bransford on why he chose a traditional publisher despite his huge blog and Twitter followings: “My editor is amazing … I don’t have time to be a self-published author … Print is still where it’s at, especially for children’s books … I appreciate Penguin’s cachet … an advance … and … I believe in the traditional publishing process.”
There is even a hilarious video about the self-pubbed authors lament.
And yet there are people who firmly believe that self-publishing is the only way to go, like Mark Williams over at Mark Williams International, who blogs frequently about self-publishing. And maybe he’s right. Time will tell.
3. Know that although most successful self-published authors today are genre writers, memoirists and literary novelists may be the e-books stars of the future.
What do Joe Konrath, Barry Eisler, Amanda Hocking, John Locke, and H.P. Mallory all have in common besides being mega-successful self-published authors? They all write genre, which is to say fantasy, sci-fi, romance, thrillers, etc. However, as Nathan Bransford pointed out today, that doesn’t mean that memoir and literary fiction writers cannot self-publish, too. A few examples are C.Y. Gopinath’s The Book of Answers, Jim Hanas’s Why They Cried, and Dawn Tripp’s Game of Secrets. Like Bransford says, we should keep on eye on The Millions, HTMLGiant, and Bookslut for more.
4. Hire a freelance editor and book designer.
If you do decide to self-publish, you should hire a freelance editor (even if you have excellent editing skills yourself) and book designer, so that your book is as professional as it would be if it were published by one of the Big 6. It’s important that your prose be as well written and typo-free as possible if you want to stand a chance against the gazillions of other books out there. And people do judge books by their covers, even e-books. H.P. Mallory says in her e-book How I Sold 200,000 E-Books, “Customers absolutely judge books by their covers—my readers tell me all the time that they first took a chance on my books because they were attracted by the covers.” Mallory’s covers are FANTASTIC, but unless you have a lot of design and PhotoShop experience, you should hire a professional cover designer.
But while freelance editors are easy to find, where can you find a book cover designer that will deliver a quality cover at an affordable price? One possibility is to sign up for Mark’s List, a list Mark Coker at Smashwords has created to help authors find cover designers and formatters for their e-books. Coker himself hired a designer to design this book cover for just $45. If you need more cover designer suggestions, visit the Resources page of this blog or Google book cover designers. To sign up for Mark’s List, just send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, and you’ll receive the list in an e-mail reply.
5. Decide whether you want to publish your book exclusively as an e-book or as print-on-demand.
The days of print-on-demand are waning. Today, most authors who self-publish do it exclusively through the e-book format because a) It’s cheaper and b) You’re not likely to get your self-published book distributed ito bookstores anyway. If you do want to offer a print version for Aunt Caroline and everyone else who still reads books the old-fashioned way, the best way to do that is through Amazon’s CreateSpace. Lulu is another big name in print-on-demand publishing, but CreateSpace seems to be dominating the sector. For a review of four of the top POD companies, read this review.
6. Do your research.
Once you’re done with that, read HP Mallory’s “How I Sold 200,000 E-books: A Guide For The Self-Published Author” ($5.99). The more you know about self-publishing before you begin, the better.
7. Decide if you want to upload your e-book yourself to each of the e-book stores, or if you want to hire a company like Smashwords, an e-book distributor, to do it for you.
At the moment, Smashwords does not yet have a deal with Amazon. This means that Smashwords will upload your book to the Apple iBook, Kobo, nook, Sony, Diesel and other e-bookstores, but you’ll have to upload to Amazon yourself. The advantage of using Smashwords is that you only have to format your book twice—once for Smashwords and once for Amazon—instead of many times, which will save you a lot of time, especially when you need to make a correction or an update. To hire a formatter to help you prepare your manuscript for Smashwords and Amazon, you can see Mark’s list or visit the Resources page on this blog. Whatever you do, don’t do this.
8. Start marketing early.
You’re probably up to here reading about building your author brand, but that’s exactly what you need to do—and early. Don’t wait until your book is out. As Seth Godin has said: “The best time to start promoting your book is three years before it comes out. Three years to build a reputation, build a permission asset, build a blog, build a following, build credibility and build the connections you’ll need later.” Start blogging, create a Facebook Page, Tweet your butt off, and don’t forget to build that e-mail list.
9. Create a backlist.
The most successful self-published authors make a living by selling readers more than one book. Often they write series, pricing the first book in the series at $.99 in order to hook the reader with the subsequent books following at $2.99 each. (Why $2.99? Because, on Amazon, authors get 70% of the money from the sale of books priced $2.99 and above but 35% of books priced below $2.99). Whether you are writing a series or simply multiple books, you’ll make the most money by having a backlist. If you only have one book, H.P. Mallory’s suggestion is to “consider offering it for free for a limited amount of time. This is a great strategy for building buzz and obtaining reviews at the major retailers.”
10. Share the love.
Don’t become the woman in the video I linked to above. Don’t alienate your friends by over-self-promoting. Take time out of your busy schedule to share what you’ve learned, to promote the work of other writers, and, most of all, to buy and read other people’s books. Because if you aren’t buying other books, you certainly can’t expect people to buy yours.
And now what about you? Have you thought about self-publishing? Why or why not? Have you tried it? How did it work for you?