My new novel, No Hero’s Welcome, launches this week. That makes three books I’ve self-published, so time to share with other aspiring self-publishers. Trust me, I’ve made mistakes for you… and plenty of them. (For those of you pursuing the traditional or indie publisher route, not much of this applies to you, but my other Your Write Turn posts certainly do.)
One of the hardest skills for any writer to learn—especially older first-time writers—is how to call “knock it off.” Back in my Air Force days, that’s what you’d say over the radio when you’d had enough dog-fight training. Or you were running out of gas. Either way, kind of important to know when to call “knock it off”—the alternative was dangling under a parachute gaping at the smoking hole that was once your aircraft.
Not to overstrain the metaphor, but I’ve met too many writers at conferences who tell me they’ve been working on their book for 5 years, 10 years—one even told me 15 years. If you’ve been dangling from a parachute staring at the smoking hole that is your manuscript for 15 years, that’s not a writing career, that’s a lifestyle choice.
I know it’s not easy letting go. I’ve packed three children off to college and published three books. They’re all your babies, but you need to know when to let go. I can’t tell you exactly when that is for your book project, but I can tell you this. Each of my published books is a seventh draft. How long it took me to get each of these seventh drafts varied from project to project. But in the end, I put out three books in three years. A book a year. Not too shabby.
However you do it, find a way to impose some calendar discipline on yourself. Set deadlines for each draft, then feel bad about missing them, only grudgingly giving yourself extensions. Deadlines are used for a reason.
I’ve put out 10,000 words in my “Your Write Turn” blog posts. If I had to choose one thing from all that word salad that I wish every would-be writer takes away, it’s this. Do Not Edit Your Own Work. It never ends well. It doesn’t mean you’re weak or don’t know grammar or can’t spell. It means nobody can edit his/her own work to a publishable quality. It’s not humanly possible.
Editing costs money and as a self-published author responsible for every bit of your book’s lifecycle, you have to keep an eye on the budget. There are three kinds of editing: developmental editing, line editing, and proofreading. If you have to economize, do so in that order. Developmental editing is the most expensive and comes earliest in the process. This is someone, often a writer him/herself, who you pay to help develop the big ideas and overall structure of your narrative, character arcs, and plot lines. Sometimes you bring in a developmental editor after a first or second draft when something is going off the rails. I’ve never used a developmental editor and most indie writers I know don’t. If you get to a second draft and the book isn’t working, throw it in the back of a desk drawer for a few years. Cheaper than stapling a $5,000 check to it and shipping it to a developmental editor.
Line editing is cheaper and something you should only forego if you’re strapped for cash and can’t find a cousin with an English degree to substitute. The line editor takes a close look at each paragraph and sentence for consistencies, redundancies, over-usages, awkward grammar structures, and those annoying verbal tics each of us has. In the early drafts of my first novel, I used the word skittered at least a dozen times in 300 pages. It stuck out like a sore thumb. My line editor rationed me to two. I just finished the first book in a series by a well-known mystery/thriller writer and his verbal tic was “rolled their eyes” after lines of dialogue. I’m talking 50+ times in a 400-page book. I’ve a bone to pick with his line editor.
But no matter how constrained your budget, never ever send a book into the wild without solid proofreading. You can get a decent proofreader for three digits—depending on the length of the book, maybe $500-$800. Lack of proofreading is what makes readers post reviews that say, “I stopped reading at page 20 because there were so many mistakes.” You’ve lost that reader for life. It also doesn’t do our indie-writing tribe any good if people dump dross on Amazon. Most serious indie authors agree that 90% of the books uploaded to Amazon each year really shouldn’t have seen the light of day. Don’t be one of those.
We Eat with Our Eyes First
Okay, you’ve got a well-edited final manuscript and you’ve mustered the intestinal fortitude to let go of your book-baby. The next step is just as important as good editing.
It is difficult to overemphasize the importance of a high-quality book cover. Like food shoppers, book readers shop with their eyes first and nothing screams “cheesy DIY” more than some photoshopped-by-your-teenage-kid cover. That’s a showstopper for me as a reader and I’ll bet for 99% of all readers. You’ve got to spend some money up front—literally. There are a lot of cover designers out there, so do some due diligence. Look over their portfolio of work to judge quality and prior experience with the genre in which you’re writing. Every genre has its vernacular cover style. Sci-fi books look like sci-fi books, romances look like romances. It’s just the way it is. So go find someone who can deliver you a high-quality and genre-appropriate cover.
You also want someone who can format a book in an attractive and professional manner. Yes, font type is important. Your choice of font can enhance your genre fit. Historical fiction books should be set in a traditional serif font style, for example. You also have to be concerned about legibility. In my first book, there were a lot of letters sent between characters embedded in the narrative and we decided to set them in italics. The problem was that the italics for the font set we chose were too light and difficult to read over long stretches of text. When we discovered this in the first proof, our book formatter made all the italics bold. That solved most of the problem.
Everything inside the book needs a coherent style. With my books, for example, we spent a lot of time picking section and line dividers evocative of the time and place of my stories. There’s a lot of detail to be considered on the inside of a book—front matter, title page, chapter headings, page numbers, even the shade of white of the paper. Often you can find a cover designer that also does book formatting, generally as a package price.
You want a formatter who’ll see your book all the way through to successful uploading of both the e-book and print version on whatever vendor platforms you choose. We use Amazon’s KDP and Ingram Spark for all the non-Amazon vendors like Barnes & Noble or Apple Books. Also, libraries and indie bookstores don’t play well with Amazon, so they mostly buy from Ingram Spark.
Beware the End Game
So you’re done, right? Book written, edited, formatted, and wrapped in a luscious cover. Time to hit the “PUBLISH” button! Not so fast with the itchy trigger finger. Assuming you want to sell more books than your family and friends will buy as a favor, there is much else that demands your money and attention. When you look at those swell Amazon or Barnes & Noble book pages, there’s a lot of back end behind them. As an indie author, you’re responsible for feeding that back end. You create the book description, provide any reviews or blurbs, choose which categories your book will fall into for searches and rankings, select keywords, and provide a carefully crafted and thoroughly edited author profile.
And don’t forget the author photo. As with cheesy covers, nothing turns readers off faster than a selfie author photo. If you have a friend or family member who is genuinely skilled with a camera and picture composition to include lighting, you can save some money here. If not, spend a few hundred dollars to have a professional photographer do your author headshots. This is going on the back cover of all your print books and will pop up on your Amazon page every time someone looks over one of your titles. Make it count, or at least make it not embarrassing.
One hard-earned life lesson many older writers bring to their new scribbling career is a tolerance for delayed gratification. With age comes the insight that some things are worth waiting for–including a book launch. Although we all want to get our books on the street as fast as possible, you may have to hold off for a few months if you want advance readers. There are several reasons you want to seriously consider allowing time to send advance reader copies (ARCs) of your book to selected readers. Arguably the most important reason is to send ARCs to your “street team,” a group of volunteers who promise to read your book and post a review on launch day to help drive your book to the top of the rankings.
In addition, if you know some writers with published books, ask them to read ARCs and provide book blurbs. These are very useful as back cover matter and for populating the reviews section of your Amazon page. Normally you’ll put no more than three blurbs on the back cover. Depending on what the blurber says and who s/he is, you may only want one or two.
You can also use advance copies to get full reviews by submitting your book to the growing number of book blogs, most of them genre-specific, that have sprung up like mushrooms over the last decade. You may also choose (although I recommend serious research and much caution) to submit an advance copy of your book to a paid book review service like Kirkus or BookLife. Be advised–they ain’t cheap and they may try to upsell you other services.
One of the things you inevitably hear discussed at every gathering of writers is your author’s platform. This is a euphemism for how much time and money you spend on social media and your website growing followers—hopefully, your future readers—that in turn grows your author visibility. It’s a big thing and hard to avoid. I’ll write more about this in a subsequent post, but suffice it to say this is a deeply personal choice that you’ll make as to how much time, effort, and psychic energy you wish to expend on your writer’s platform.
Odds and Ends
During the run up to launching your book on an unsuspecting public, you should also ponder the annoying but essential topic of copyright. Intellectual property—both yours and other people’s. When you have the final print file of your book, that’s the time to register your copyright with your government’s copyright office.
Now, about other people’s intellectual property. Understand that you can’t use other people’s writings or song lyrics or images without permission, often with a fee attached. This frequently comes up with cover images. I was fortunate that my books were set before 1923, the cutoff date for copyright protection. So I was able to use photographs from the First World War into the early 1920s for my covers and period song lyrics without violating anyone’s copyright. Most of you won’t be so lucky. Nor will I with my next books.
Your formatter or cover designer will often help you purchase the ISBN numbers required for each type of book (e-book and print). None of the vendors will list your books for sale without these numbers. In the USA, you can get these easily enough yourself from Bowker. Buy a block of 100—you’ll burn through them faster than you think. They’re really cheap to buy in bulk, too.
If you’re intending to write a series of books, do yourself a favor. Think hard and spend the extra money up front to ensure you have a cover style and inside format that will serve you well for all the books you plan in the series. It’s important to have visual cohesion across a series so that readers recognize that the books belong together on their shelves and in their heads.
Finally, one of the distinct advantages of being and indie author is that you get several bites at the apple. You can change your book’s master files whenever you want with Amazon or Ingram Spark. So you don’t have to live with that embarrassing typo you missed or that date you got wrong. For example, when we produced the audiobook of my first novel, the narrator found a handful of minor errors that we fixed. This doesn’t magically correct the many print copies already out there, but the future e-books and print versions will be that much better. So keep track of comments from readers, or in my case from my wife’s old high school English teacher who ensures I hear about every typo she finds. Also bad conjugations, dangling participles, and verb-noun agreement errors. She’s a tough audience who doesn’t easily swallow “writer’s stylistic choices.”