Ten Things I Would Do If I Was Going To Self-Publish Today

I spend a fair amount of time here rambling back and forth about self-publishing, the potential benefits as well as the pitfalls and issues. Mostly, it’s on the wary side of things, which I think is apropos of the current state of digital publishing. I may give the impression that I don’t like self-publishing, but that would be a misnomer. I think it’s potentially great, but there’s the equal potential for epic failure. So, I thought I would put down here (as my current state of thinking on this particular day) what I would do if I was going to self publish right now, given what I’ve learned in my poking around.

  1. Write more than one book. Success in self-publishing relies a lot on momentum. Assuming for the moment that you garner some interest in a first book, you want to be able to follow it up with another.  I don’t mean in six months to a year either. You want to get a second book out close on the heels of the first, which means a month, maybe two at the most. I’d want to follow that up with a third within two to three months.  This provides a six month window to not only work on building readership and establishing a connection to them, but time to write another book. My end goal here is 3 books a year on a continual basis.
  2. Write short. Short stories are a great medium to add to the characters and worlds you create in longer works. Being able to throw these in on occasion is an appreciated bonus to readers and gives you something to put up in those inbetween times. I’d want at least on short of some kind in between each book. Also, keep the novels to a word count on the lower end. It takes time to write an epic. While I love epic stories, it takes a longer time to write them. My goal would be in the 75-90k range. If you really want to write long, break it down into manageable chunks.
  3. Create a social media presence. You need a blog or fb presence, i.e. a fan page. While you don’t need to necessarily have a platform from which to speak, you do need a place to interact with readers, a place to run contests/giveaways and a general venue for building interest in you as an author. Wherever your books are sold, this presence should be easily found, through your bio or information about the book.
  4. Find an editor/copyeditor/cover artist. I’ve spoken about the need for these before on the blog. The vast majority (99.9%) of writers do not have the skills in these areas to do this themselves and do it well. This is one of the biggest problems in the self-publishing world. New writers don’t understand the value and necessity for these things, and until you work with professionals in these areas, you won’t truly get the benefit and need. They make your book better! A LOT better. Don’t insult readers by putting out a poor product, because that is what you do when you put out a poorly edited book with a crap cover. “My first book will be free so I don’t need to worry so much about these things” is not an excuse to not do this. You will kill any chance you have by starting out with a poor impression to readers. I won’t self-publish unless I can afford to get these services enlisted for my books. If this means waiting and saving, so be it. I value my work and the investment of readers too much to not do these things. You should too. There is no such thing as “good enough for self-publishing.” Either do it right or don’t do it at all.
  5. Pay attention to reader feedback. One of the big benefits of self-publishing is the fact that your product can be improved after the fact. Errors can be fixed, content can be added or rewritten, and covers can be remade. If 90% of your readers complain about the pacing in the first half of the book, look for ways to improve. Unlike traditional publishing, you always have control over your content at all times. Take advantage of this fact. Another benefit of reader feedback is that you may get an idea of what kind of story they’d like. I’m not saying you should simply pander to reader desires, but if you created a compelling side character that a lot of readers love, you might consider creating a story about them. If you don’t pay attention to your readers, you will never know these things.
  6. Build brand recognition. Don’t write a thriller and follow it up with a romance. Decide what kind of story you like the most and stick to it, at least initially. You want readers to keep coming back for your books. Many readers stick to story types and will expect you to provide something similar. Don’t throw them a curveball by publishing wildly different stories. You want to build a solid house before you start working on another. I’d put out half a dozen books of one genre before I thought about giving readers something different.
  7. Get your book out there far and wide. I wouldn’t recommend locking your book into Amazon only. I don’t like their programs that lock in exclusivity. I don’t care that it might generate some more money within their store. If you’re happy with what you’re making from there, then fine, go for it, but I want the chance to build readership and to do that means having my story out in as many venues as possible. Anything that increases visibility and the opportunity to bring in more readers is a good thing. Don’t limit yourself. Personally, I’ll never lock myself in to Amazon.
  8. Be positive. Not everyone will like your stories. I’ve had my share of bad reviews on my Deadworld books. That’s just part of the game and you have to accept the fact that not everyone will like what you write no matter how good it is. Some people like to throw the hate around. Again, nothing you can do about this, and responding in kind does nothing to promote yourself. Always be positive in response to readers. ALWAYS. “Your book sucks moldy cheese!” Well, sorry you didn’t enjoy it, but perhaps you’ll like my next book better. Don’t get caught up in defending yourself. There’s no need and it’s counter-productive.
  9. Keep plugging away at traditional publishing. Self vs. Traditional isn’t an either/or scenario. There are benefits to both and there are drawbacks to both. If you’re in a position like me, where resources are limited, having someone who can do all of the non-writing elements and potentially get me to readers I’d never be able to reach is a huge bonus. More readers and a better quality books is a good thing. Yes, you take a big potential hit on money. It’s a trade-off, and one I still feel is worthwhile, even if I do believe authors deserve better terms with traditional publishing. My hope is the changing industry is going to force better terms, but one can’t underestimate the benefits of a good editor/copyeditor/cover artist/marketing dept. You don’t get these in self-publishing without paying for them, and you can pay a lot for good, professional services.
  10. This kind of goes back to #4, but don’t compromise. I don’t believe there is such a thing as “good enough.” If, for whatever reason, you don’t feel your story is as good as it can possibly be, don’t publish it. Saying, “it’s as good as I can do” and knowing it could be better with a good editor or a better cover and so forth, isn’t good enough. Have integrity as an author. Respect the art of the story. Because if you don’t, readers will pick up on this. They aren’t stupid. If you respect the reader and the story, you won’t compromise on anything that goes into your book.

Ok, that’s my general run-down, and given all of that, it’s the reason why I won’t self-publish anything today. I’m not in a position to put out the best book I possibly can. I have put out one, and I regret doing it. It could and should have been better than it is. I won’t do that again. I will likely self-publish in the future, but it won’t be until I’m ready and able to do it.

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If You Can’t Respect Your Work, Nobody Else Will Either

I’ve talked before about how I feel that self-publishing is working, at least in part, to deflate the value of books. I’m not one who is willing to blithely accept the notion of “sell it for what will sell the most copies.”  I don’t subscribe to the dollar book pricing. Yes, I understand some writers make money this way, and economics in the digital world is a different animal than the physical, but I am still holding to the idea that books are worth more than a buck, regardless of what works.

Honestly, I think writers would sell for whatever the market perceives is reasonable, whether it’s $1.99 or $9.99. The problem of course is making headway in a glutted market. It’s not like there is limited store space. There is no scarcity of supply in the digital book world. Demand, of course, is limited. There are only so many readers out there. In this scenario, there is going to always be downward pressure toward zero. If we want to alleviate this pressure, two major issues have to be addressed.

  1. Book Quality
  2. Reader Expectation

These are complicated, interwoven issues. As a writer, the biggest thing under our control is the product/story we put out there.  Everything about the words on the page are under the control of the self-published writer.  You don’t have to answer to anyone. This is both boon and bane.  There is the danger in being your own boss to assume, that because the product is yours, that you always know what is best for it. This isn’t true in the business world and it isn’t in books either.  As with all creative works, the artist is often too close to it to see potential flaws. This is why editing, copy-editing, cover artists, and the like are so important. Sometimes people with knowledge and experience in your field have expertise and a viewpoint that are better than your own. To not use or ignore them results in a poor product.

When you ignore that which will make your product better, you do so at your own peril and jeopardize any chance of success. You also create that downward pressure on the products around you. Consumers look at their product choices and if the majority of them are of a certain quality, an expectation is built and the perception of value declines. Think of it as something like a neighborhood of houses. The more shoddy homes there are the less overall value there is to all of the homes, from the mansion down to the shack. Basically, don’t build a shack when you have the capability to build a mansion. And if you don’t know how, find out from those who do. If you can’t afford to, save until you can. In the end, if you can’t do these things at all, then don’t build.

Yes, I said it. If you can’t write a good story, don’t know if you can, or find yourself in a position of not being able to, then don’t do it until you can. I realize that in an open market such as this, everyone has the right to put their product out there, but just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Have respect for the story. If the readers don’t then they aren’t going to value your books, and more significantly, they aren’t going to value other books as much either. As a consumer, I don’t want it to be difficult to shop for products I like and find worthwhile. If I have to struggle through an endless array of cheap products to find the good ones, this lessens the value of my shopping experience and lowers my expectation of the products as a whole.

Which brings me to reader expectation. Readers want good stories. They expect to be able to get them. You want reader expectation to be high. If they perceive value, they’re willing to pay more. Self-publishing has been working against this perception of value. Let’s face it, one doesn’t expect much for a dollar. It’s an impulse, throw away value item. One doesn’t expect much for a dollar and one isn’t terribly disappointed if one doesn’t receive much for that investment. Self-publishing is playing off this idea of giving a valuable item at a throw away price in order to generate interest in the product.

There are problems with this idea. It’s a balancing act between value and expectation. What I’m seeing in self-publishing (at least with fiction, which is where I am coming from) is that readers are developing an expectation of low value because they are having to spend on poor books in order to find good ones. If you are finding only 1 book in 3 at $.99 that is worth your time, the mindset is that you spent $3 to get a good book. Books are an odd and difficult product to market because it’s hard to perceive its actual value without purchasing, and it’s not like you can return it for a refund if you don’t like it.

We’re getting to a point, however, where readers are going to expect, even demand that books be at the dollar throwaway price, because they have to pretty much waste their money on products they don’t like in order to find one they do. There are some out there who believe this is a perfectly acceptable mode for publishing. If your product is good, your cheaply priced product will lead buyers to be willing to spend more down the road. The problem is, there’s some tipping point in all of this somewhere, and I don’t know where, that the cost vs benefit exceeds what the reader is willing to tolerate. Readers will spend so much in that effort to find the good books, that they will not be willing to pay more because the investment to get there is just too high.

Unfortunately, we may be close to this point already. The expectation for a dollar book isn’t great. It doesn’t take a lot to exceed this expectation, which leads to the mentality on the producer’s end that you only have to be “good enough” to exceed this value. If you can make a “good enough” product to make money at the impulse level, which requires less time and investment on the production end, there is no incentive to make the product better. Basically we get a book market where writers crank out mediocre or worse books because that’s all that is required to meet reader expectations. It’s a vicious circle of driving down the value and quality of books.

In the end here, respect for story as well as value is pressured ever-downward. If the writer doesn’t have respect for the product, how is the reader suppose to? Now, I’m not saying all writers are like this at all. There are plenty of great writers out there, but there is a growing population of writers out there who don’t or perhaps more difficult to deal with, the writers who aren’t experienced or knowledgeable enough to even understand how they’re feeding into this cycle. My point of all of this rambling is essentially this: have respect for your work writers and also respect for the reading experience; if you don’t believe you need/have to put out the best possible product possible, readers won’t expect it either, and they won’t value what we do as writers.

One More Harbortown Snippet

Ok, after discussing some character stuff on this story with my wife (author Tracy Madison), I decided there had to be a prologue in order to establish some credibility with some of the heroine’s issues presented in the story. Again this is rough draft material, and I value feedback/comments (or I wouldn’t put it up here, lol), so please feel free. This is a fairly intense scene, and very personally female, which can be difficult to get into as a male writer. So, with that in mind, I hope you enjoy and I’d like to know if you like/dislike or feel like it entirely misses the mark. Happy reading/writing everyone!

The New Generation of Self-Published Authors Need to Understand the Whole Picture

As things usually go around here, a brief discussion with my wife (author Tracy Madison) about some publishing stuff sparked a, “oh, that would make a great blogpost!” We were talking about self-publishing in some fashion or another (I believe it had to do with covers) and she brought up the fact that many self-published authors, those who eschew the traditional publishing path entirely, miss out on seeing exactly what the whole process is like and the benefits publishing house can provide.

It brought up the point that we might have a whole new generation of writers who fail to gain an understanding of the process beyond the actual writing of the book. Don’t get me wrong, self-publishing has a great many benefits for those who have the talent, skills, and knowledge to make it work properly.  Knowing that books get edited, covers get made, manuscripts get copy-edited, is a far cry from actually experiencing that process through working with professionals in these areas.

There are a lot of authors out there fresh into the publishing arena that have never seen any  of this stuff at work. They’ve written a story, spent a lot of time and effort to create something they hope readers will enjoy, and can’t wait to get it out there and into reader’s hands. Self-publishing is viewed as a way to get it out there now as opposed to later. Don’t get me wrong, this is a benefit as well as an issue. Traditional publishing is SLOW. They are also very selective. They have to be since there is limited shelf space out there. One can spend months or even years attempting to find an agent and finding an interested editor at a publishing house. While faster, even e-publishers take time. They reject a lot of material too. It can be very frustrating and in the end, very futile.

Getting a first book published is rare. Very rare. It’s quite understandable that after putting all of that effort into it, that it might indeed go nowhere. Self-publishing can remedy that situation. With little effort, one can put it out there for readers to see. This is a huge draw. HUGE. Unfortunately, it also puts a writer in the position of not having the benefit of seeing just what a typical book goes through to get into reader’s hands. Now, while it is certainly possible to educate oneself on this, to learn about what can and should be done with a book once it’s done, the sad truth is, many don’t and/or just aren’t aware enough to actually look.

The simple fact of the matter is, the vast majority of writers, experienced ones included, are not great editors, can’t make good covers, and don’t know the rules enough to be a copy-editor. The result is a poor product that very few people will want to read. Sadly, and I’ve heard this more than once, is that readers don’t care enough about this for it to matter. Worse is the implication here that they aren’t actually savvy enough to know the difference.

Talk about insulting. This is the last thing you want to present to the reader. Unfortunately, I think there is a subset in the growing tide of self-published authors that don’t get this. There’s the thought that you just have to put it out there and they will come. It just doesn’t work that way. The fact is, books need editing. ALL books. They need copy-editing. They need good covers. If, mind you, you want any chance at succeeding. Without ever having seen the process before, however, not ever having experienced it, and seeing the potential cost incurred to get professional services in these areas, new writers balk. They can’t or don’t want to invest those kinds of resources in their work.

Going forward into the future of ebooks, as more and more potential writers see self-publishing as an easy way to get their book out there, we’re going to see a growing pool of writers who do none of the things they should be doing, because they either can’t, don’t want to, or don’t understand what it takes. They’ll suffer the frustration of never seeing their book go anywhere. Readers will suffer wasting their money on poor products. In the end, it will cause more harm to publishing.

So, please, new writers out there, work hard at gaining an understanding of what it takes to make a book good. It’s more than just putting words on the page. There are so many other writers out there willing to help. There are tons of resources out there. More importantly, you have to be willing to invest in your work, if you want a chance to succeed. Personally, I’d like to see you all succeed. I don’t, however, want you to hurt the industry by putting out a product that nobody wants, and makes readers feel that writers don’t care about what they’re paying money for. It takes time, effort and investment. Be willing to invest yourself in your work.

I don’t say any of this to harp on new writers. We all started off at a place of not knowing, and it’s our job to learn as much as we can, not only about how to tell a good story but to polish and package it in such a way that it is also a good experience for the reader. The learning never stops, no matter how many books you write.  It’s very difficult to explain the difference between doing everything yourself (or trying to) and having the assistance of professional editors/copy-editors/cover-artists. It’s a night and day kind of effect, at least I think it is. Do not fool yourself into thinking that you can easily do it all on your own. The skill set required to do all of these things well is extremely rare. In the end, the readers can tell the difference. Don’t let them down.

Another Harbortown Snippet

Another scene/chapter clip from the side project. Again, this is rough action here, so there’s likely a couple errors or three in here. It’s for fun, feedback, and hopefully a bit of reading enjoyment. This story is perhaps even more noir and dark than Deadworld, but non-supernatural. Noir-Romance I suppose you could call it. Here, we see police work in action in Harbortown, and the fact that my heroine, Rachel is a little bit whacked and probably has some issues to deal with. Hope you enjoy, and of course, feel free to comment, positive or negative. It’s all good. Happy reading/writing everyone.

Only keeping snippets up for a week before taking them down, and it has reached that point, so this snippet is no longer available.

The Apples and Oranges Debate over Royalties

No matter the opinion and rhetoric I read regarding the ongoing battle between publishers and Amazon, someone, or several someones always brings up the notion of who has the author’s interests? Usually, this is framed as publishers don’t give a crap about authors and Amazon does. What this generally devolves into is looking at royalty rates. What I question here is this. Are royalty rates all that matter when you are looking at who has your best interests?

First of all, publishing is a business. The companies that conduct this business want to make money, because at the end of the day, if nobody makes money, books don’t get produced and sold into reader hands. So, at a base level, there’s a certain overlying element of selfishness at play. Second, nobody has more interest in a book than the author who wrote it. This can’t be trumped. There is no, “I care about this book as much as you do” that can come from anyone in the industry on any kind of honest level. Anyone who says that is full of shit. People can certainly care about your story, be invested in its success, but this isn’t about seeing who cares as much as you do. Nobody does.

So, let’s look at investment then. There are obviously different levels and definitions of this relating to books.

  1. The most obvious and clearly talked about is pay. This gets framed as royalty. It’s the easiest to look at and compare. Publishers range on this number from 25-40% for digital and can be on gross or net earnings (in general). Typically big pubs offer on the lower end, while digital pubs are on the higher. At Amazon, it’s 35% at the low and high end of retail, and 70% through the middle. The advantage here is clearly for Amazon.
  2. Time. Publishing a book is not an instantaneous event. It takes time to produce. Editors take time to read and help polish a story, communicate with the author and other staff related to seeing the story through the process. Copy editors spend hours picking through an entire manuscript for errors. Cover artists take hours producing a cover that will hopefully grab reader’s attention. Marketing people spend time deciding what and how much resources can be devoted to the book. Promo people spend time getting books out to reviewers, placing ads, etc. Time is spent formatting a book for the various digital formats. Time is spent in meetings figuring release schedules. Time is spent seeking foreign rights, t.v., and movie deals. Publishers invest a lot of time in getting a book published. Amazon does not invest directly in individual books. Their investment is in creating and maintaining an environment in which to market and sell your book. While this is certainly a significant investment, spread out over tens of thousands of authors, the investment per author is small.
  3. Resources. The people involved in publishing a book on the publisher’s end are many and varied. They require pay and benefits to perform their tasks related to the book. They have offices in which to work which have equipment used to perform tasks related to getting the job done of creating the book. It requires financial resources to pay for and maintain these. Amazon provides you with an environment in which to sell your book.

So, if we’re talking about an investment of time, resources, and money, publishers invest a lot more in an author’s book than Amazon, even if we’re taking out the print/distribution from the equation. I honestly don’t know numbers or if they’re even available anywhere in any form that allows us to see a breakdown of costs vs. profit on a book at Amazon or any publisher. I would truly love to see what the profit percentages are for a self-published kindle book. Is Amazon clearing most of that $.65 they take on a dollar book or do they only clear a dime per copy? I doubt we’ll ever know because Amazon is never going to let anyone see that kind of info.

I’d love to see some publisher transparency. Take an average midlist author and give us a breakdown of  of the hours and money spent to get a book on the shelf. If they’ve put that out there for us to see, I don’t know about it. My understanding is that they lose their investment on a lot of books, which is covered by books that do well. You could say there is a great deal of inefficiency in publishing, which is probably so. I’d like to know if that low end royalty percentage is set where it is because that’s the most they can offer and still come out ahead on average or is it set because it’s the least amount they can get away with?

The claim by most of course is that publishers lowball authors as much as they can in order to maximize profits. In the business world, most companies do indeed try to get the products they sell for the least amount of money. While one can’t exactly fault this business practice in general, publishing is its own odd little industry. Books aren’t widgets. The products are unique to themselves and thus prone to the subjective whims of the buyers. While on the one hand, this makes them more valuable, on the other it makes selling them a very inconsistent process. Investment does not equal profit a good chunk of the time.

Which brings me to the point of how comparable is it to look at royalty percentages between a publishing house and Amazon? You have two very different types of business doing very different things, investing different types and amounts of resources into the author’s work. It’s almost an apples and oranges type of comparison. You can’t do it in any level sort of way. Am I saying that pubs are offering what they legitimately should to author’s? No. I wish I could see information from publishers to gain a better understanding.

I suspect you have the problem of costs incurred in running a large organization compared to say an epub which has far fewer inherent costs by comparison. They pay authors more because they can afford to. Amazon is the same way. They can give 70% because their costs per author are minimal. Going with a paper publisher offers the advantage of paper books. I can understand a differential in royalties as a trade-off. But as digital continues to grow in market share, that trade-off becomes less valuable, and pubs are not altering their game to adjust. They have to because we’re getting to a point, if we aren’t there already where authors are saying, “All things being the same” as far as my chances for success, I’ll go with the higher royalty.

So, think twice before offhandedly slamming mainstream publishers. It’s not a simple matter of “look who offers better royalties.” You’re comparing different things when you do that. Just saying, “Screw you, pubs!” isn’t productive and is a disservice to those who do invest in your work and give their time and energy to try and make you successful. At least understand the entirety of the ballgame here. For me, it’s more of waiting for the giant to turn its lumbering ass around. The playground has moved, but I’m not writing it off. I want it here to play with, because it plays certain parts of the game very well.

Side Project Snippet

I like to write opening scenes, whether I know it’s where I really want to start the book or not, in order to help me develop a better sense of character.  It helps to solidify things in my head and spark thoughts of future character development. For fun, here’s the link to the rough, opening scene for a side project I’m toying around with. This is not my current WIP, but something kind of waiting in the wings as it were. And as an experiment, I’m putting it out here to invite feedback.  Anyway, hope you enjoy and let me know what you think. Thanks! Happy reading/writing everyone!

Note: Only keeping these various snippets up for a short time and then taking them down, and so, this one is now gone.