Monday, February 4, 2013

To Self-publish or Not, and What You're Getting Yourself Into

Over time, I've been asked by some people about my experiences self-publishing compared to when I tried to go the traditional route, in addition to other questions. It has become apparent that there are a lot of lessons that me and other authors have learned, and so we can speak from experience to help others considering independent publishing as an option. However, what I haven't seen is someone going over the basics, what's involved with independent publishing, or at least what's required to do it right. Now, this post isn't about how to write or format your books or anthologies. It is a simple explanation of what's involved and why I went down that route in the first place. While simple, the process is quite lengthy, so bear with me.

First, as I mentioned in a previous post long ago, let me say that I have never been traditionally published. I am not opposed to it, but would need to have the right publisher and publishing contract. A small publisher was interested in publishing one of my novels some time back, but I politely turned her down simply due to the cost-benefit potential; what she had to offer me as a small publisher versus what percentages she would take as compensation. Since I'd already self-published and completed most of the work she was offering to do as part of her costs, and she had little to offer beyond marketing in local book stores and fairs, I couldn't justify it in my mind. She was pleasant and a great person to talk to, and for some would have worked wonders with their books, but I'd already done so much legwork and wanted my books available online for ereaders, so our interests didn't really connect. However, let me repeat that this offer came after I'd independently published A Life of Death, the book she was interested in. (Update: The A Life of Death collection was picked up by Books of the Dead Press in early 2013 and is no longer self-published.)

This brings me to the follow-up questions that are often asked: How do you go about publishing independently, and does that end your ability of going with a traditional publisher later?

I have heard nothing but good things about authors that go independent while still trying to get traditionally published. The old belief that the submission must never have been published seems to no longer apply. Publishers even search out the independent authors now, offering the most successful ones publishing deals like Amanda Hocking, Scott Nicholson, and others you may have heard of. And they have to offer them a lot of money normally or high percentages, or both, since the sales from successful independent authors garner the author 75% of sales cost normally. Most independent authors are unwilling to take a drop to 6-25% of profits without large sums of money upfront. Those percentages of profits are the equivalent of 2-6% of the total sale per book, so you can see why they would be hesitant when the drop from 75% is so significant. However many independent authors continue to shop for traditional publication, and being able to show good reviews and a developing fan base should improve your likelihood of getting a publisher or agent, assuming you still want one by then.

To begin, you have to get a good cover made that will catch a reader's eye and have your book edited and formatted for ebook and print. I offer editing services through WAKE Editing, but also recommend Katy Sozaeva for thorough and affordable proofreads. However the marketing of your book also falls to you. You have to find the best way to market your book using the online media and social resources available. It can be done. Amanda Hocking, Scott Nicholson, Joe Konrath, Scott Rhine, and many other authors are finding their place in independent publishing and finding success. Even Rowling took her Harry Potter books and went independent once their contracts were up with the publishers. However, whether it is right for you is a different question. It takes work because you are acting as your own publisher, buying your own ISBNs, finalizing your work so it is the equivalent of traditionally published books including finding a professional editor and cover artist, and contacting book reviewers to get honest reviews and do interviews.

The alternative is waiting for years to get published, more than likely only to wind up exactly where you are now, but with lots of rejection emails and letters. Some authors get picked up and published traditionally, but you statistically have a better chance of winning the lottery than getting published by one of the big 6 publishers. That is why so many authors turn to independent publishing now and why publishers are now more inclined to look at independents than to sift through their slush piles. They know that at least the independents are willing to work in their novel's best interest and can see how the reading public is responding to the book. It helps them to decide if they'd like to approach the author or wait and see which authors with agents approach them, at least that's my understanding.

The Process:
The one thing I'd advise anyone considering branching into independent publishing of their own books is to make sure your book was copy edited based on the Chicago Manual of Style rules. That is the bible of fiction writers and the standard all fiction editors use. Then, you need a cover. I have used three cover artists in the past, all of which I would recommend as being affordable and creating very good covers. My first novel's cover, Invisible Dawn, was created by Bradley Wind. The cover for A Life of Death and Strange Circumstances was created by Renee at The Cover Counts, and for my most recent release, the cover to the sequel to A Life of Death entitled The Golden Bulls, was created by Simon Critchell at SandS Creative. I highly recommend any of these, but there are others that are also reasonably priced with good results.

The next step is deciding whether you want it in print or just ebook. Then having someone format it appropriately for those two things or just ebook etc. Most of the books I sell are ebooks. You can do the formatting yourself, but it does have a learning curve. Or you can pay a professional editor to format it for you. Then decide where you are going to publish it. I recommend CreateSpace for print on demand. They will also get your book out to Barnesandnoble.com and Amazon.com for people to buy in print. Lulu also does this, but their manufacturing costs for the book tend to be higher for the same product, meaning you have to put more money in upfront and sell the books for above-average costs.

For ebook, you can use Smashwords to take your formatted copy and convert it to all of the different formats. There's also Calibre if you'd prefer to do it yourself. However, either way, I'd recommend downloading Sigil, another free software, to go through and check for errors and fix the table of contents file and other things. Then you can re-upload the fixed file to Smashwords if you want to use their service to distribute to every ebook market like Apple, Sony, Kobo, and the rest. However, they do so for a small percentage of your sales. The one they can't send yours to is Amazon.com. They've tried, but Amazon has 90% of the ereader market and hasn't been willing to work out a deal. I guess Amazon would rather you use their conversion service at KDP and sell directly on Amazon. It is free, so easy to do with the same finalized file. That will then make your books available in every format through every major online ebook distributor.

However, you then have another decision to make. Amazon offers the Prime option. For authors, this is called the KDP Select enrollment option and places your book into their lending library. You are paid a percentage of the funds allocated for that month, normally around $600,000.00, based on how many times your book was downloaded in the lending library compared to all the downloads from that month. This tends to be about the same price you'd get in sales off a $2.99 book for each download. In addition, Prime gives you the ability to do five days worth of giveaways in every ninety-day period, which is how long the contract you agree to lasts. If you don't opt out, you will start the next ninety days under contract, with an additional five days of giveaways for each book you have in KDP Select. While KDP Select is free and gives you a great way to get your book into the hands of 90% of the ereading public to help boost sales, but there is a catch. Being in KDP Select requires that Amazon is the sole distributor of your ebook - not print, just ebook. That means that you cannot distribute your book through Smashwords or any other ebook retailer so long as you are under a KDP Select contract for that particular book. Since all of those other retailers only amount to about 10% of the ereading populace, this is a bit of a quandary - cater to all, but reduce your ability to get the word out to 90% of readers as a new and upcoming author, or accept KDP Select's proprietary distribution limitations through Amazon and gain that giveaway and lending library ability. The decision is yours. (On a side note, these percentages are based on the last time I checked, which was close to a year ago. They may have changed somewhat, but can't have adjusted drastically. From what I understand, with the growing sales of iPads being used as ereaders, Amazon may hold less than 90% by this point, but they still hold a very large majority.)

Once you've uploaded it, download a copy for yourself from the KDP preview and/or Smashwords. You can read these through Adobe Digital Editions for epub and the Kindle previewer for computers. Skim through the file to ensure that there aren't any problems with how it's being viewed on the ereaders. If there are problems, you can upload a new file once you've addressed the issue and saved it. Then preview it again to be sure everything looks good.

Once it is finished, it will take Smashwords some time to get your book to all the distributors, two to three weeks normally once you've met their catalog requirements and have no errors in the file. Amazon will get your ebook up and available on their site fairly quickly, normally within 24-48 hours. However, I highly recommend that once it's up you double check everything, making sure your Summary appears correctly and without typos or errors, that it is priced accurately, etc.

While your book is then up and ready to be sold, that's when the real work begins. You have to research book reviewers like Coral at Alchemy of Scrawl, David at An Eclectic Bookshelf, and Christi at Alaskan Book Cafe. There are so many great book bloggers out there that I can't name them all here, but they are great people. Get to know them. Also get in touch with actual readers and do interviews and giveaways. You need to get your book into people's hands so that they can judge for themselves and give it honest reviews. This can be done using the Kindleboards, which is just a great place where kindle readers often go looking for giveaways and good books to read. There are also other book sites and book bloggers that have followings. The people that follow them rely on them like professional movie critics. Book Reviewers and Bloggers are the literary critics of today, and I have never found one to be anything but pleasant and agreeable. Often, their success is dependent on getting wonderful upcoming authors to do interviews in addition to giving reliable reviews for their followers. Amazon, Goodreads, Shelfari, and other sites allow readers and bloggers to say what they thought of a book. It's great, so get your books into their systems as quickly as possible. They all have slightly different processes for adding books, so familiarize yourself with them. Used to, you would buy a book you saw someone else reading or that a friend recommended. Now, reviews act as an extension of that word-of-mouth recommendation. Reviews can make or break you, which is why you need to have the best product out that you can create and let it speak for itself. When contacting Book Bloggers or corresponding with readers, never ask for a review only if they like it. That's unethical and just bad practice. Have confidence in your book, the thing you put so much time and effort into creating and refining. Let it speak for itself once it's in the reader's hands. If you've done your job, that's all you can ask for. The rest is up to the reader.

There are also other marketing avenues you can take, such as pay-per-click through Facebook and other major advertising methods, but due to their cost, I have had limited experience with them. I am sure they can help you build your Facebook site or website, but beyond that, I don't know how much they actually affect your sales or if the cost would be worth it. The results will probably differ for each person. That goes for just about every kind of marketing though. A pretty recent article I read regarding marketing can be found here by Jonathan Gunson. It might be beneficial. There are plenty of others out there though. Marketing is an artform in itself. I've tried different things over time. Some that I currently find helpful are Facebook, Twitter, Hootsuite, Book-Buzzr, Google Plus, and others. These sites help you connect with readers for free. I've also used Authonomy to connect with other authors and even Wattpad. They tend to serve different audiences and purposes, but are helpful to new authors if you use them to connect with other authors and get honest peer review. The big step after that is simple, yet very hard - honestly consider the advice. If a few people are saying the same or similar things, you really should take it to heart so that you can improve your writing. Never consider your growth as a writer to be complete. You always have more to learn. Some of these marketing and social media sites have worked better than others, but that doesn't mean they won't work better for you. The best kind of marketing though, is simply writing and publishing more books. Having more books out there for people to read increases their chances of coming across one of your books. Then, if they liked the first, they'll pick up another.

While I am an author, I am also a lover of books and a reader. Like most readers, if I find an author whose books and style of writing I enjoy, I'll pick up every book they've put out, finding time to read them all. So authors and readers, rejoice in the understanding that we are one big family of literary lovers. So, help entertain each other. Put out your books for readers to enjoy. Readers, don't be afraid to try something new. You never know what you'll find.

My thanks go out to Marie, Jason, and the others who have asked similar questions. These are good questions, and I just hope I can help some authors who are considering going this route to avoid time-consuming pitfalls and know what they're getting themselves into. Self-publishing is fun, but everything rests on your shoulders. It can be difficult at times, even frustrating, but for those interested in putting in the work, I would recommend it. If you are one of these authors and found this post informative, please share it and tell a friend. If you have questions I haven't addressed, feel free to post them below and I will respond. Thanks for reading.

Weston Kincade ~ Author of Invisible Dawn, A Life of Death, and Strange Circumstances

11 comments:

  1. Great post. This was very informative and I have to kind of deal with the same stuff, though I only use proofreaders in the editing process and do ebook and print formatting myself. You did forget about the Google Play store for books though.

    Unfortunately, I have not really had anybody review my book

    Anyway, what do you think of author trying to do cover art on their own? Many recommend against it, but I heard people tell me that they like the designs I have done on my books.

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    1. Sorry to hear about the lack of reviews. I'd be happy to myself, but I honestly get so little time to read very often beyond working for my clients that I couldn't give you a set time to have read it by. I will pick it up some time and get to it. Could be a while though due to my lengthy to be read list. So don't hold your breath, but it will come. I don't make promises I don't intend to keep.

      So far as authors doing their own cover art, that can work, but not very well for me. I did my original cover for A Life of Death, and unfortunately it just didn't turn out that well. You can probably find digital copies of it floating around on the net at various places. However, I'm a writer, not a graphic artist. I'd say some have the talent to do it well, and others . . . well they might want to look into getting a cover designer for a couple-hundred bucks. I'm in that second group. Remember, first impressions with readers are everything.

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    2. Darn, could not fix that typo, meant to to say "books".

      No worries. It's my fault that I do not have any reviews, since I have not really tried asking anyone. Just let me know through email through what one(s) you want to read and I'll give you a coupon. I am only concerned about the titles on Smashwords, since my first book was probably not that great (I have heard that people really enjoyed it though, such as a student talking about my book at school).

      Although I have not gotten any reviews, I have received two five star ratings on goodreads, one from my proofreader.

      Yeah, doing cover designs is difficult. However, like writing, it takes time to get better.

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  2. This is the dilemma I am going through now. There's this certain validation you get from a traditional publisher, but when I think of all the marketing I am actually excited to do, that I already have cover art, am paying myself to get it published, not to mention I'm impatient and dont want to wait 16 months. Well, the idea of going grom 70% royalties to 15% royalties isn't exciting. Then again, 70% of a thousand is less than 15% of ten thousand. Some bloggers won't talk to self-pub folks, which I do understand why. As for amazon prime, it has worked wonders for me, but I think leaving it in prime comes with diminishing returns.

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    1. I would just say go the route that works best for you.

      As for validation, I do not really think it matters too much. After all, those who seek validation just are not doing things right. I think a writer should write because they enjoy it.

      While some bloggers do not talk to self-pub folks, which is why I never really asked for reviews (other than the fact that they want printed copies), I would, as long as it not erotica or something that is only for 18+ and there is no DRM, which is the brunt of my newly made review policy. Besides, Weston was one of the authors that actually gave me a chance, though my blog was just starting at the time.

      If anything, I would be more likely to refuse traditionally published authors because either they or their publishers will most likely not want to give me a DRM-free ebook. I have reviewed traditionally published books though.

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    2. Ask tattoo artists if you know any personally for cover art ideas of what you want to convey. My opinion if worth anything.

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  3. Corrections to above. "paying myself to have it edited" not "paying myself to get it published." More prove why I need an editor.

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  4. Mark, your points are very valid and I agree wholeheartedly with your view about personal validation. As I said, I'm still interested in finding a traditional publisher myself, but it has to be a publisher that believes in my novel and is willing to help promote and market it. That means putting decent money behind promotions, advertising, etc. However, until then, self-publishing can work well. However, you always have to start with a very good, professional product that of the same caliber and quality as traditionally published books. And yes, we all need editors, or at least proofreaders, for our eyes often know not what our fingers have typed.

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  5. I have read my books at least four times and had four others English gurus proof me before I release, and I still find things to fix the fifth time. I usually wait a year to do so, however.

    I'm flattered to be lumped in with much more successful writers.

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  6. I regret that I burnt my writings in a drunken rage one evening. Life experience has now provided me with many avenues of less dark and morbid writings (maybe not, I'm just as dark). I am not writing shiny-happy-people kinda stuff. The problem is how dark I go that is truly my inner self on paper.

    Very informative and thanks for posting.

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  7. I can't help but allow my darker side out on the page, so I understand completely. I haven't actually burnt my writing before, but I've lost enough for various reasons. Thanks for speaking up Scott, Chris, Mark, and Bryce. Keep up the writing and reading.

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"Wordsmith at your service . . . delving into my subconscious so you don't have to. Trust me, it's better this way."