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Self-publishing: some truths

Last week I blogged with a few hometruths about getting an agent here: It was all, frankly, so depressing, I wouldn't blame people from running away and deciding to just self-publish the darn book after all.

Why bother getting an agent if the book might not even sell? Why tie your work up during that process? In fact, if your book isn't wanted why not just bring it out yourself? It's as good as any other book in the market, it could do really well. Look at that chap Andy Weir, he did all right for himself.

Etc etc etc.

I've done both the self publishing and publishing route. I've even done the agent route. I've tried just about every way through the morass available to me. So here is the bad news: 

Self publishing is no easier.

Sure, you can chuck your unedited, unbeta-read, first draft book on Amazon. You can even stick your unedited, unbeta-read eighth draft book on Amazon (but it probably won't be that much better.) You can shove your homemade cover on it and you might - might - get lucky. The way you might get lucky on the lottery. But it's not the way to make a living self publishing.

1. Self publish because your book is a good one to self publish. 

 There are markets that do better self published than trad published. If you want military space opera, look online. It's hard to find in the shops but there are tons of fantastic books and authors online. Since the readership are loyal and specialist, it's a genre that throws up the golden word of mouth quickly. It's also a genre that likes series - and a self published platform can do really well with a series.

Don't self publish because you can't get an agent - try to find out why you can't. (If, on the other hand agents keep coming back and telling you they love it, but there's no market for it, get self publishing - that's one of the great strengths of the indie world: niche books that can reach out for their readership).

2. Don't cut corners. 

For me (and this is me only, others may feel differently) there are three things anything that goes out under my name should have:

A professionally produced cover. I'm not saying you need to win cover awards but the image should be memorable, the fonts good and, especially for self publishing, strong enough to stand out as a thumbnail on Amazon. Few people can do that themselves. Yes, it's a cost (but to self publish for nothing is not professional) but it should pay back. And it will mean your book doesn't scream home-made from the very beginning.

Editing. My trad published books get beta read, then an editorial review, then a copy edit. Want to guess what my self published book got.
Exactly the same. I'm thinking of bringing out a novella next year - which I'll self publish - and I've already got an editor lined up for it. My editor has worked for trad publishers. They've worked for one of my publishers. My copy editor will, I hope, be the same copy editor who has edited all my books to date - trad and self published.
There are no shortcuts to having an editor. Your grammar might be perfect and good - mine sure isn't - your story might have held up through seven beta-reads. You still need an editor for the final polish - or, at least, I do.
Editing is the first thing a lot of people considering a self published book look at. If it's poor, it will be reflected in reviews and feedback. I get many comments about Inish Carraig (my self published book) along the lines of relief - and surprise - that it's well edited. No one yet has stated shock that my traditionally published books are edited. There is an assumption there that the writer needs to be aware of and take steps to overcome.

Formatting. The book should be nice to read. If you can't do it yourself - I never have, but am about to tackle a short story conversion to learn the skills - pay for it. It's cheap as chips. But most people say it can be done by the author, albeit with some kicking of walls on the first attempt.

Why do all these things? For me it comes down to one simple thing - my name is on that book. I'm not having my name associated with cruddy work. People may not like my books, or my writing (horror!) they may hate my themes. That's down to taste. Editing, cover and formatting are down to professionalism.

3. Marketing.

Note, marketing, not promotion. Promotion is a given for every book you produce, whether for a publisher or yourself. People like to know the author's thoughts, not the publisher's. It's up to you how much you do - and the promotion vs time-to-write-the-next-book argument is a valid one.

Marketing, however, is a different skills set. It's done by the publisher in trad books, but for the self publisher it has to be done by themselves. When in doubt, fall back on the classic 4 ps of marketing:


For any paperbacks produced, this is straightforward. You take your costs and add a little on for profit. You might want to think of your font size, and play around with the production costs to keep it within the price parameters for the format (over ten quid for a paperback is a tough sell) If you're going into retail, you'll want to ensure you cover the 30-50% the shop takes (see this blog for more on that

For ebooks - things are trickier. The big publishers charge close to, or sometimes more, for an ebook. Most self publishers find this astonishing and not a little greedy. Let me make this clear - once I have put that book on Amazon, I have no additional costs. But each paperback I produce costs me around £4.50.

For me, I take a straightforward mechanism. I look to make a certain amount per copy of book sold, and I look to keep this around the same. I don't believe my kindle readers should be lining my pockets more than my paper readers. I'm happy for what I've decided is a fair return for my book.

Even if I didn't have that attitude - I am an indie writer. Few will gamble on my e-book at five quid or more. I keep my price down, and hope that people will come along and try it. Considering no one knows what on Earth my self published book will be like (let's see, aliens, Belfast, sort of District-9 but in a Norn Irish accent, that sort of thing) - I really need to price it so people will try it. As reviews build, more people do (I have a sneaking suspicion for Inish Carraig word of mouth is king), but I still need to be realistic about it.

I've talked about the quality of the product above. But product within the market goes a little further. Is it the right book for the market you're in? Do you need to be in more than one category? Is it going to meet reader expectations? Hopefully, however, if you've produced a good book, product is largely taken care of.

One thing worth googling, though, is Amazon key-words. These can make or break a product. As, for that matter, can blurbs. Get these right, or your book will sink.  (I might see if I can get someone in to do a guest blog on those sometime.)

 See above. You will have to do this for any book you produce. Convention appearances, price promotions, give aways, building a mailing list (have I exhorted you all to sign up? Do, please. It's over on my website, interviews, podcasts. In the next week (I'm building up to a book launch and have an anthology launch this week) I'm doing:

This blog - for me, myself and I. This is brand Jo Zebedee, if you like (I don't, as it happens, but we're talking marketing here).

A facebook launch for this lovely anthology 

A live podcast here (oh, lord, live! Why, why, why do I put myself up for these things...)

Completing an interview

A guest post for the fab SFFWorld

A meet the author night.

A busy week. Not unusual for a hardworking up and coming author, however. And less than for an author who's made it, is full time and in demand.

As an indie you get to decide where and how you sell your book. On Amazon only? Across a range of platforms? Bookshops? Conventions? Trade fairs?

You have to do the maths. You have to make the call. To do that, you need to know what call you're making. You need to work out does that place pay back or not and, if it does pay back, is it a payback in copies sold/money/visibility.

Trust me, that's all a lot of work.  And after all that, your book might sell one copy a week, or two, or ten, or none, or 10000. You cannot predict it based on the work you do, the reviews you get, the places you are - any more than you can predict the outcome with an agent.

Still think self publishing is the easy option and the agent grind hell on Earth?

Next week, I'm going to do fluffy bunnies and rainbows. (Actually, I hope to have a blinding guest post for you. I have a few coming up, including Dion Winton-Polack on working within collaborative worlds, Peggy Wheeler who writes awesome myth-blending works and Michael R Fletcher, who is going to produce something that takes his fancy. Be feared.)