Why Self Publishing Is Harder Than People Think

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Since Beautiful was published I’ve had several conversations with people who seem to think that self publishing is easier than traditional publishing. Having never published a novel traditionally,  I can’t say with any authority which is more difficult. However, I can say that self publishing is way more difficult than many people assume.

You need to do a lot of research.

  • Unless you happen to be a writer who can also format for print and ebook, design a book cover, self-edit, proofread, market and promote a release, you’re going to need other people, and resources.
  • Need an editor? What kind of edit do you need? Developmental? Line edit? Copy edit? You need to do research to understand the differences, and evaluate potential editors.
  • You need to know your genre. What do readers expect? Yes, sometimes pushing the limits and playing with expectations can be welcome. But sometimes it can make readers feel betrayed: like they paid for something and you didn’t deliver. That leads to bad feelings and bad reviews.
  • What do book covers in your genre look like? If your book cover doesn’t have certain elements it may not find its intended audiences.
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You need other eyes on your manuscript. With traditional publishing this is something that the publishing company will provide. With self publishing, you are once again on your own.

  • Beta readers- When I write a manuscript it goes through several rounds of betas. I write a draft, self-edit and revise, send it off to betas and get feedback. Then I revise again and repeat the process a few times. By the time I send it to an editor it’s been through a lot of beta reading. With Beautiful, I sent it to several Betas just before publication as well.
  • Sensitivity readers- Depending on the subject matter of your book this might be a very good idea. More info on that here.
  • Editors- Yes, you need them. You can and should self edit, taking some time and getting some distance can help, but you can’t see your own work objectively. Sometimes great editors are also writers, but not always. Also, depending on the kind of edit you need, you might seek out different people.
  • Formatting- The last thing that you need is write a beautiful book, take time to edit it and get it into great shape and then have an ebook that malfunctions, or a print copy with repeating pages. Yes, you can learn to do this yourself. I found it very complicated and since it’s not my forte, I had someone else do it.

You need a professional cover. Again this isn’t optional. Readers judge books by the cover. We’re told not to and we do it anyway. Fortunately there are a lot of cover designers out there, so depending on budget you have options.

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You need money. Everything I’ve just mentioned comes with a price tag. A traditional publisher won’t charge you for editing (if they do it’s a red flag, you need to do more research to make sure this is legit!) or cover design, but as a self publisher, you need to hire freelancers to do it. Each one will tell you that that’s the most important thing to spend money on. You need to figure out what you budget is for this project and how to allocate it. Then you can figure out ways to cut costs. Instead if a custom designed cover, you can use a premade cover. Some editors will allow you to pay over time, or figure out a way to trade services (ie: if you help me set up my new website, I’ll give you a free developmental edit.) Many people find free beta readers on goodreads or facebook. But budgeting comes down to figuring out what you need and prioritizing, which takes even more research.  It may also mean some degree of labor, if you work out trades.

You need to market your book, promote it, and sell it. All of this just covers what goes into making a book a book. I haven’t even gone into a discussion of promoting and marketing a book once it’s released! That’s yet another task that falls to self-published author.

I think a lot of people hear the words “self publish” and assume that you’re uploading a word doc with your manuscript to kindle. Which, is what some people do, I’m sure. But many self published authors put a lot of effort into making a product that is high quality and professional. Most of those authors don’t come from a publishing background. They learn on the job and with limited resources.  Just because they’ve bypassed the traditional publishing system (there are many reasons for doing this!) doesn’t mean that they’re taking the easy way, by any stretch of the imagination. Self-published authors deserve a lot of respect for the investment (in terms of money, time, energy, and emotion) they put into each book. So next time someone tells you that they’ve self published, give them the respect that they deserve!

What Does It Mean To Be A Successful Author?

The other day, I was watching a movie and a character referred to himself as a “failed author.” In the context of the film, it was clear that he meant that his book hadn’t sold well. But it got me thinking about what “success” means as an author. After all, my book isn’t exactly topping the best seller lists. Does that make me a “failed author”? Considering the fact that when I published Beautiful, I expected to sell about three copies total, I’d say no. I don’t know what the character in the movie was expecting or hoping when he published his book: it was never made clear. But when I decided to publish Beautiful I was very clear about what “success” would mean to me with this book: if people (any number of people) read the book and got some enjoyment out of it, I would consider it successful. I’ve gotten some really nice feedback on the book. More than I expected! It’s encouraged me to move forward with publishing a follow up and building a career. So in that sense, I absolutely consider myself a successful author.

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But let’s rewind a moment: before I published Beautiful, I had seen writers in books and films say similar things about their books quite frequently. Even then I would roll my eyes a bit at it. These people had not only had the stamina and dedication to sit down and write a book (and  presumably edit and revise and rewrite it) but they had the confidence and perseverance to publish it. That in itself is a win! A lot of people say they want to write. Of those very few make it through the first draft. At each stage a lot of people give up. I would say that people who have the perseverance to write a book, and the courage and confidence to publish it, are successful regardless of whether it sells a single copy!

In fact, book sales are a fairly arbitrary indicator of success. Yes, having money is nice, I certainly don’t deny that! But how many brilliant writers throughout history sold very few copies of their work during their lifetime? Even my own criteria for success don’t hold up under that lens: many great authors were mocked and derided initially by readers and critics and only appreciated by posterity.

Given the fact that popularity and monetary rewards aren’t always indicative of success as a writer, the only way that a writer can be assured of a chance of greatness some day is to finish that book, and publish it so that people can read it. Maybe it’ll sell a million copies when if first comes out, be made into a forgettable movie and make the writer financially comfortable for the rest of his or her life. That’s certainly a kind of success. Maybe it’ll sell a few copies but be loved by readers and inspire future work. That’s a  kind of success too. Maybe it’ll be enjoyed by those who read it and then forgotten as they move on with life. I’d argue that’s success too. It might be helping those people as they struggle with something. It may take them away from their trouble for a few hours. To me, that’s success regardless of whether or not its remembered later.

I would argue that the only way to fail as an author is to not write and to not let people read what you’ve written. That’s the only way that it has no chance to make an impact. But if you write, and you share your writing, then you’re successful, whether or not you recognize it.

In Response to “That Publishing Article”

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About a week ago, author Heather Demetrios published an essay called How To Lose A Third of A Million Dollars Without Really Trying. The response from the writing community was swift and varied. It was also emotional because a lot of the writers who reacted to things that Demetrios was saying as well as their own perceptions and experiences which they projected onto her.  Things got emotional and muddled and I think it’s worth taking a few moments to think through because, while I don’t always agree with everything she says, Demetrios makes some interesting points and has some good ideas to help writers in the future.

In the piece, Demetrios discusses her publishing career. Early on, Demetrios got two six figure book contracts. For a kid who spent her childhood on food stamps that was exciting to say the last. When she signed the first she tried to keep her head: she kept her day job.  But when the second check came through she figured that this change in fortune wasn’t temporary.

It had happened twice in a row, these six-figures: Surely I had somehow become one of the chosen few. After years of research and struggle to break out in such a ferociously competitive industry, I’d somehow come out ahead.

So Demetrios quit her day job and fulfilled a lifelong dream of moving to NYC to write full time. She traveled, treated herself to concert tickets, shoes, $15 cocktails etc.  Her books were published to critical acclaim, but they didn’t earn out that six figure advance. So the next contract was lower: only $17,000 for her next book, because that was what her last book had made. With a very supportive editor on her side, eventually that was negotiated up to $35,000. When that book didn’t earn out either the next offer was $25,000. Demetrios found herself panicking and in trouble. She couldn’t afford to sustain her lifestyle.

Now a lot of other writers felt that she came of as “entitled” in this piece and that she didn’t do the necessary research to learn about sustainable financial management in publishing. That’s true. She made a lot of mistakes (something she admits). But she also feels that there should have been greater transparency within the industry:

Did anyone working with me — agency, publishing team — tell me that a sumptuous advance was not something I should depend on or get used to? Or that, in fact, it’s extraordinarily common in the publishing industry for untested debut writers to be paid large sums that they may never see again? No. Did anyone in the publishing house take me under their wing and explain to me how the company made decisions about future book deals? No. Did the publisher tap a more seasoned author on their list to mentor me, as many major corporations encourage within their companies? No. Did the MFA in writing program that I was part of, in any way, arm me with the knowledge to protect and advocate for myself in the publishing world? No.

Yes, all of that is information that she could (and yes, should) have sought out with research. But she also has a point in saying that traditional publishing could be a more  sustainable industry if there were more attempts to educate new writers about the realities of the business.  Writers would be able to make better choices if they had support. With the financial aspects more transparent, they would have more freedom to focus on the creative sides of their work. They could focus their promotional efforts on things that they knew had proven success. All those are good points that could benefit the industry as a whole.

The indie authors who responded with comments like “I wish I could get a $17,000 advance. Be grateful!”: I get it! I’d love a $17,000 advance. Hey, I’d love a $17 advance! But I (like you) made the decision to publish my work this way.  While we don’t get the advances we get to keep most (usually about 70%) of our royalties. Traditionally published writers don’t. We also (usually) don’t have to pay 15% to an agent. Most of us made this decision after researching the traditional publishing world as well as indie publishing.

Should Demetrios done that same kind of research about the traditional publishing industry? Yes. But unlike indie publishing, traditional publishing has the resources to put together established structural support. Doing so has few down sides.

Since I wrote about the way our society pays artists in What’s Your Day Job  I wanted to respond to this because it looks at some of these issues from another angle.

What do you think? Did Demetrios come across as entitled and privileged? Did she make valid points? Or both?

How Prolific Do I Want To Be?

Lately I’ve been wondering what kind of writer I am. In some ways the answer to that is obvious. I’m an indie author. I write fantasy. But in some ways I feel like I don’t measure up to other, “similar” authors. I put similar in quotes because these authors are also indie/self published who write fantasy in the same sub-genre but they write a lot more than I do, and seem to do it more professionally.

thumbnail_Elle s mIt took me about four years to write Beautiful, and another year to publish it. Some of that was because I had to figure out elements of publishing for myself, while working full time.  Now I’ve been working on the follow up, Frozen Heart, for about three years. It’s pretty much written, in that I have a manuscript with a beginning, middle and end. I’m somewhere between the second and third drafts  right now. I’d like it to be ready by early 2020. If I’m not able to manage that I might have to wait until the end of 2020. Beautiful was published in July 2018.

Indie authors usually try to write at least a book per year, preferably more. I’ve seen authors publish as many as three books per year. A lot of the research I did before publishing Beautiful actually recommended waiting until you have several publish-able manuscripts before publishing your first, so you have more ready to go. I decided not to do that because I wasn’t sure if/when I’d have a ready follow-up and I felt ready to send Beautiful out into the world. I don’t think that was a mistake but I don’t think I’ll ever be a writer who can publish one book a year.

I read a blog post once by an indie author who said she writes only one draft of each novel before having an editor look it over, making a few, small tweaks, and then publishing. I can’t imagine doing that. My first drafts are a mess! My second drafts are a little bit better, and so on.

I’m not criticizing anyone who can turn out great work on the first try! I’m envious! I don’t think that will ever be me.

Maybe as I go on, I’ll get better at self-editing. Already, I’m noticing improvements between my first book and my second. When I wrote Beautiful, I would see something in a draft that didn’t quite work but I’d stubbornly hold onto it until several beta readers had told me it didn’t work. Now I’m quicker to kill my darlings.

But I want my published novels to reflect my best work. In order to do that, it takes me longer to write a book than is generally recommended for indie authors. Obviously the more I publish the more opportunity I have for sales, but right now, compromising quality doesn’t seem worth it to me.

Do you prefer authors to be prolific or careful with what they publish? Does it have to be an “either/or” situation?

 

Happy 1st Book Birthday to Beautiful!

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A year ago today I published my first novel, Beautiful: A Tale of Beauties and Beasts.  It’s been a good year as far as writing goes. I learned a lot about publishing and I think that I’ve gained some confidence as I work on my second novel.  Here are some posts that I’ve written over the year about my journey with this book.

Why Authors Love (and Hate) Reviews

Why You Should Read My Book

Research When You’re Writing Fantasy

What I’d Tell Myself About Writing A Book…

Why I Write What I Write

Publication Day!

Pre-Publication Jitters

Hopefully by this time next year Beautiful will have a book sibling!

Why Authors Love (and Hate) Reviews

If you follow any indie authors (or really any authors in general!) chances are you’ve seen something like this:

The reason for that is that for authors reviews=sales. Even bad reviews can help (though good reviews are better!). Amazon’s mysterious algorithm promotes books more when they have fifty reviews or more.  Reviews can be a sentence long. They still count.

When I published Beautiful, I rather naively thought that if I asked readers on social media to review the book, at least some of them would. But that plan had a few flaws. If Amazon suspects that the reviewer is a close personal friend/family member of the author they’ll delete reviews. Not everyone who leaves reviews is. I’ve had reviews from unknown readers deleted but once Amazon has deleted a review it takes an act of divine intervention to get them back up. Another problem is that even though the reviews don’t have to be long, it’s hard to get people to write them.

So how can anyone get reviews? Some authors hire review services. These are actually legit. They’re basically a panel of readers. Once the author pays a fee, the book is presented to them, and any readers interested are free to read it and leave an honest review. But that means the author needs to be able to pay for it. If you have a writer in difficult financial circumstances (and there are many these days!) that’s hard.

The best way to get reviews is to send out ARCs.  ARCs mean that you have a chance of getting to the magical number of reviews before the book is published. But that’s something that you have know to know before your books’ release. It’s something that I will know when Frozen Heart is published.  Of course ARCs don’t always equal reviews. Before Beautiful‘s publication I did send out some ARCs to bloggers. A few did give reviews. A few didn’t. So next time around I’m going to send out more ARCs to increase my odds. Live and learn.

Of course, getting reviews is only half the battle. The other half is dealing with negative reviews. When you’ve invested months (or years) of your blood, sweat and tears into a book, you’re sensitive. It’s your baby. My experience with Beautiful (so far) has been fairly positive. There are five customer reviews on Amazon that average out to 4.7 our of 5 stars. I know that as I (hopefully) get more reviews I’ll have to face some bad ones. Everyone does. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer.

I feel like I’ve learned so much about this stuff since Beautiful was published. I did a lot of research before publishing, but I think that some of it just seems meaningless until you really see it in action.

Why You Should Read My Book

I know I promised to slow down with the shameless self promotion and I will. Just one more post…

I’ve blogged about my book, Beautiful, but I realized that I hadn’t actually told you why you should read it. So here, in random order, are the reasons you should read my book:

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  • It features two protagonists who are sympathetic but flawed. Both grow in significant ways over the course of the novel. No Mary-Sues or Gary-Stus here.
  • It actually features a healthy YA romance. No triangles, no insta-love, no possessiveness, no mind games.
  • It explores aspects of a popular fairy tale that are aren’t often addressed in retellings.
  • We see two characters who have both grown up with a certain degree of privilege try to stand on their own two feet for the first time. They are successful in some ways. Other ways are harder.
  • There is a brief introduction to two of the characters featured in my follow-up novel.
  • Reviews are good. According to Amazon reviewers, it is “compelling,””vivid,” “a delight to read,” and “sweet.”
  • It’s free on Kindle Unlimited and only $2.99 to own.

Amazon reviewers are saying_

  • Make a great gift for fantasy/fairy tale lovers this holiday season.

Research When You’re Writing Fantasy

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A few months ago I  was talking to someone about writing. He asked what genre I wrote and I said “Fantasy.” He said “That’s nice. At least you don’t have to worry about research.” Well, that would be false. All writers are different of course, and I can’t speak for anyone else, but I definitely do research as a fantasy writer.

When I first started writing Beautiful, I was just throwing my imaginings on the page, and I hadn’t really done much research or preparation. But when I realized that I was writing a variant of Beauty and the Beast, I started to do some research. Specifically, I started with Google.  I think I literally looked up “beauty and the beast story variations” found some interesting articles. Some sites I found particularly helpful were Pook Press, Jenni of Shalott and SurLaLune Fairy Tales. I read up on some animal bridegroom tales from other cultures.  I wanted to see what themes emerged in common among these stories and where they differed. I also read a lot of existing retellings. I discuss some favorites and some observations in this post. I also read a lot of contemporary discussions on the story, including popular claims that it’s about Stockholm Syndrome (here’s my rebuttal if you’re interested) and I decided that I wanted to write something in which there weren’t any real captives. I also watched a lot of film versions of the story. For about a year I lived I Beauty and the Beast themed life, and I reflected a bit about the story and why it appealed to me. I wasn’t sure how much of this would end up making it into my book, but it was interesting food for thought.

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Another layer of research came as I was revising. I wanted the book to be set in a sort of generic “past” rather than a specific time and place.  But I still needed to look up things that the characters do. For example, in one scene, Finn, a wealthy, privileged character who has always had servants to do things for him, is on his own in the wilderness.  He must build a fire. In the first draft I brushed over this, because I was more interest in getting everything down. But as I revised I had to get more specific.  As far as I’m concerned, building a fire involves striking a match, so that took research. In another scene, the heroine, Eimear, is stung by a jellyfish. Fortunately, that’s never happened to me, so I needed to do research to find out what that looks and feels like, and how it’s treated. Google was again, helpful here. I have no idea how writers did research in the pre-Google days!

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Another element of research come in as I was building my fantasy world. The courts are based on a classification system derived from Scottish folklore. But within those environments I included other classifications from William Butler Yeats and Katherine Marie Briggs. I also included creatures from different folkloric traditions. One book that I used a lot was The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures, which is a general A-Z guide to creatures from different traditions and systems of mythology. Once I found things I wanted to include I took to the internet again for more research.

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The finished product. Buy it! Read it! Review it!

My research process for my second novel has been similar-ish with one major difference. The first time around there was a lot of “how to” research involving publishing, and a lot of trial and error. I’m hoping that this time around will involve a little less error!