"Hi Ksenia, I wish you would write about that [self-publishing] process. The do's and don'ts. The good or bad ways. Steps to go through. Soon I’ll be going into this and will be suffering from overload I am sure, until I can figure it all out. As I have been following you for over a year now, I just find that you are so knowledgeable in this realm, and always helpful to others. Thank you so much. Wayne."
Hi Wayne, excellent questions, and a post long overdue. I've been collecting information about this over the years, and you can look at the older posts I'll link below, but it's a good idea to summarize it all quickly in one post, to give you a kind of a starting point and not feel so overwhelmed by the whole process. Here we go then.
1. Do your homework. Just because you're going into self-publishing, it doesn't mean that it's somehow different from any other business you could be going into, like gardening or plumbing or catering, or opening a glamour beauty salon for pets (I have cut both people's hair and pets' hair, and I can tell you that pets are often more grateful; after; if you didn't get bitten). You're going to be selling a product, and your product must compete with other products out there, so go to a bookstore and study books to death, then copy the ideas from them until you develop your own.
2. Do hire a self-publishing team. You can't do this alone. You will need other people to help you: an editor, a proofreader, a formatter, a cover designer. You could argue that you don't need anyone and can do these things yourself, and I will laugh in your face. You could be a genius, of course, and possess both the writing skills and the design skills, but no matter how talented you are, it takes an outside pair of eyes to package your story. You can't unknow it—you wrote it. Someone who didn't write it will have an objective view of it and will know how to present it, and that person isn't you. You can have your say, of course, but this is where you let your team do the job for you.
3. Do adhere to the industry standards. Trying to reinvent the wheel won't do you any good and won't result in sales. Being original is not about being outrageous and breaking the rules—break them when you've known them for a decade. Stick to what's expected—your readers will thank you for it. If you're writing in a particular genre, study the conventions of that genre (later, when you've eaten a dog on them, as we say in Russia, you can reinvent your story within those conventions and maybe even break them, like Thomas Harris did with the thriller conventions in The Silence of the Lambs). If you're writing a novel, pick up any novel from your bookcase and see how it's laid out, how many chapters there are, how they're titled, where does the introduction go, the acknowledgements, the author's bio. What size is the book; what are the fonts; how is the cover designed. In other words, how is it packaged to sell? And sell it did, didn't it? Your job is to study how and why and do the same.
4. Do study your craft. Without craft you're fucked. I tried rebelling against this idea (just ask my writing mentor), and I paid for it dearly, with a whole year of writing that went under the cat's tail (another Russian saying). There are books on plotting, on character development, on style, on grammar, on dialogue. Hell, there are so many of them, you can spend your lifetime just trying to read them all. So be wise. Pick the best of the best. And read novels (or whatever it is you're writing, perhaps short stories, perhaps memoirs) like crazy, to get a sense of the craft, to see how others have been done it successfully, then copy them. Don't worry about not being original. You will be original, simply because you are you. Trust yourself.
5. Do plan to invest time and money. Again, self-publishing is like any other business. You've got to get it up from ground zero, and to do that you need time and money. If you don't have either, you'll be self-publishing into oblivion. Sure, you'll get your books out there, but you won't make sales, and you won't grow your readership as fast. In fact, your growth will be so excruciatingly slow, you'll be tempted to quit; and many authors do quit, sadly. Don't be one of them.
6. Do experiment with prices. And with other things that could help you sell more books—different tags (when tagging for Amazon and other distribution sites), different categories (try switching between sub-genres that are close enough to yours), different promotions (a free ebook if someone buys a paperback), etc. Dropping prices might boost your sales, but it might also signal that the quality of your book is poor. So experiment. This is the beauty of self-publishing (or the horror, for some people)—it's all in your hands.
7. Do your research. I mean, both the research for your book and for the marketplace. Your story must ring authentic, and it must fall within the parameters of the marketplace you're selling into. Who is your audience? Why would they want to buy your book? To read it? To show it off to friends? To give it as a gift? Just like for any other business, the same rules of research apply here. By the way, don't try writing to a specific audience unless you know what you're doing (YA, for example). Write for yourself, then see what audience fits your story, not the other way around (again, unless you've been doing this for years and know what you're doing).
8. Do get a mentor. It's all fine and dandy to read articles online, listen to podcasts, and watch videos of other self-published authors, teaching you how to do things (including you reading this post right now), but it doesn't replace an actual warm human being who has been through years and years of playing the whole publishing game and can guide you on your way up. I was lucky to have connected online with my writing mentor (he is silly in that he insists I don't mention his name, as he is a recluse and is terribly shy and doesn't want people bothering him, but I suspect you all know who I'm talking about). We live in the same city, and so I get to see him every so often, and he took me under his wing with Janna, which is a huge deal for me, because Janna will be something else. So. Seek out a mentor. Go to writing meetups, to writing groups, whatever it takes, and then once you found someone, stick with them and don't go anywhere and concentrate on writing.
9. Do the math. Oh, the scary word. Math. The math I mean here is the math of the nitty gritty of the actual book formatting (this is before you send it to your formatter, unless your formatter is someone you trust to make these decisions for you). It's not what you think about when you write, but it's what you have to think about once you have the book written. How many words is it? What format does it fit? A short story? A novella? A novel? What size will the font be? Guess what, the size of the font will determine the number of the pages, which in turn will determine the price of the book (Amazon won't let you price a book below a certain number just because of the page count). And this is not all. What size is the book? This also determines the number of pages. Then other things like, how many chapters does it have? Do you need the table of contents? Is it maybe too long to be a novel and has to be broken in two? A trilogy? That's what I did with my first book, Siren Suicides. It was so freaking long, I had to cut it in three. I paid the price for this, too: most people read only the first book. That's why I republished the second edition of it as one book, condensed.
10. JUST BLOODY DO IT. There is never going to be the perfect time to dive into it. You will never have the perfect knowledge on the subject. Admit it, commit to it, and do it. You will learn more from writing and self-publishing lots of bad books than from sitting on you ass, scared out of your mind, studying self-publishing until you're blue in the face. When I started, I had no idea what the hell I was doing. I'm still unsure on lots of things, and I'm still learning things every day. There are some things I'm better at than others, so I try to find people to help me where I'm weak. And that means, if I can do it, you can do it. So do it. You can be afraid all you want later.
1. Don't despair. You will learn this. I started out knowing nothing, and I have learned and am still learning, and you can too (repeating this so I can burn it into your brain). It's a matter of time and commitment. You can't learn it overnight, like any other business you'd go to (shampooing spoiled pets, for example). So stop looking for a formula. I can't give one to you, neither can anyone else. It will take you years to find your own way in this big self-publishing world. All I can do is hold your hand, reassure you, and point you in the right direction. It's your job to roll up your sleeves and do the work. If you're afraid of this kind of work, I suggest you find to do something else.
2. Don't expect good help for free. You get what you pay for. I have had humble beginnings where I was broke and had people help me for free, pro bono, or for a promotion (I got out of my way mentioning anyone who helped me everywhere I could, shouting from every roof about how awesome those people are—though none of those people have ever asked me for it, I simply wanted to at least give them something back). I'm slowly starting to make money, and I'm beginning to pay my team, still only a fraction of what they should get for their work, but I'm getting to that place where I can pay them in full. And this is what I've learned. You can skate on free help for a while, but you can't compete with professionally edited, formatted, and designed books in bookstores unless you enlist professional help. Period. End of story.
3. Don't reinvent the wheel. We've covered this one already, but it deserves being mentioned once more. I had to learn this lesson the hard way. Stick to the rules. When you know the rules, then you can break them. The fluke stories you read, about some author doing something outrageously new, or someone being discovered by a publishing house for their innovative work—these are exceptions. They do happen once in a while. But for the rest of us scribblers it's best to continue studying our craft the way it has been taught from time immemorial. Unless you have the luxury to write and publish whatever the hell you want and don't care about making money or making a name for yourself, you must study writing craft until you bleed out of your forehead. That is, if you want to become a commercial writer and make a living writing books. Which is what I want and what I will make happen. You watch me.
4. Don't disregard reading. I can't tell you how many self-published authors I met who tell me they don't read fiction. "I don't want someone's ideas influence me," they tell me. This is the most asinine reason I have ever heard. Then why are you writing? For self-indulgence? What's the point in doing something if you don't get better at it? Don't grow? Then those same writers whine how their books are neglected, they get bad reviews, people are not buying them, etc. Then comes the blame, on others. Makes me want to laugh hysterically. "Good luck," I want to say. "I'm sure a ton of gold bricks will fall on your head one day, for all your efforts." This is plain arrogance and disregard for learning. If you don't read, might as well stop writing. All complaints to Stephen King, who said it first. (I'm sure others have said the same thing before him.)
5. Don't expect sales right away. In fact, don't expect any sales when you start out. This way you will be pleasantly surprised when you do make some sales, and they will make you happy instead of miserable. "Here I thought it'd be on the New York Times Best Sellers List! What the fuck? Why don't those idiots recognize my talent??" Well, sorry to break it to you, but you're writing books to make money, you better quit now. And if you write one book, self-publish it, and then take a whole year to promote it and sell it, you won't go far either. You're better off sticking to the formula or writing a book, promoting it for a few weeks, then starting to write another book. And another. And another. You have to build a portfolio, so when the big break comes (and it will, if you keep writing and keep getting better), you have lots of books to sell. Readers who love your books will go back through what you've got out there and read everything. And that is when you will start seeing sales. (Give it a few years.)
6. Don't quit your job! If you have one, stick with it. It will provide you with the capital needed I mentioned above. Think of the money you're making as your start-up costs. You're investing into your business. You can't run on fumes, can you? Didn't think so. So keep that steady paycheck coming until you think you can safely start writing full-time. I actually went the opposite way and did quit my job, but I had savings to rely on, and then unemployment, and I still consult on the side, so you see, I'm not fully supporting myself with my books alone. Yet. But I will. It's only a matter of time. (And you will too.)
7. Don't be afraid to make mistakes. Mistakes are awesome. We learn from mistakes. Try out different things and see how they work for you. Be constantly on the pulse. What are your readers saying? Forget about your pride and your ego. Think about self-publishing as a business. Who are your readers? Your customers. And what do you have to do with customers? Cater to them. Really, it's that simple. People will tell you what they want. Then give it to them! One of my teenage readers asked me to put Siren Suicides on Wattpad. I had no idea what Wattpad was. So I went there, I learned how it worked, and I dumped all my books there. I made a lot of mistakes when I did it, formatting it wrong, etc. Then I fixed it. Then Rosehead shot up the charts there in readership. It drove readers to me in hordes, and, as you can imagine, sales. It still does. Another reader asked me for an audiobook, and I did it. Again, I made mistakes. For close to 8 months nothing happened, then I got a voice over actress insterested, and Rosehead became an audiobook. And it's actually selling on ACX. I just got a check for $44. It's very little, but it's more than last month. See where making mistakes got me?
8. Don't get paralyzed by planning. Yes, there is such a thing. You reading this post is one of them. You're hoping to learn something that will help you plan better, before you dive in. Well, I can tell you, you can only plan for so long. Eventually you have to jump in with both feet and make it there on your own. The self-publishing community online is incredibly supportive. I suggest after you're done reading this post, you go ahead and commit to finally self-publishing your first book (or your second, or whatever number it is) and then finding a place online where you can share your pains and ask for help and advice. You're learn more by doing it than by planning it. But then, you already knew that, didn't you?
9. Don't listen to naysayers. There are plenty of those. Turn a deaf ear to them. These are the people who wish they could be doing what you're doing and are spilling their resentments on you. Shut them out of your life. If they are family members, it might be harder to do that, but think about your dream. It's what you always wanted, isn't it? To hold your own book in your hands? So what if it's not perfect. You wrote it. You cried over it, you laughed, you felt a million emotions. It's your baby. You did it. Don't let anyone take this gift away from you. You deserve it. It's your life, not theirs. It's your story. You owe it to yourself to make it a reality and to tell yourself, "Yes, I'm a published author. Here is proof." Nobody can take it away from you. (If they do, call me, I'll come and show them business.)
10. DON'T BLOODY GIVE UP. Never give up. Never. You hear me? You might be closer to success than you think. If you stop pushing, you will never get there. Remember what Ovid said: "Dripping water hollows out stone, not through force but through persistence." Persistence. That's your key word. Persist, and it will happen.
To close this rather long ramble, I'll give you a list of 20 links (in no particular order) to some of my old posts that cover things like what fonts to use for your book, where to upload it, and so on. Bear in mind, some of them are 3-4 years old and might be outdated. If they are and you want me to write an updated post, email me.
- Choosing a path to publication (how and why I decided to self-publish).
- Self-publishing to-do list (what to do before self-publishing your book).
- Converting your manuscript to an e-book (how to dump all those words into a format that's actually accepted by online book distributors).
- A conversation on book pricing (examples on how to price your books and why)
- Distributing your books: CreateSpace + Ingram (what sites you go to, to self-publish your book).
- Where to upload your books (a list of sites apart from CreateSpace and Ingram where it would be a good idea to upload your books).
- Navigating the curious maze of self-publishing platforms (another list of every possible site out there that helps you distribute your books).
- How much does it cost to self-publish a book (a dollar amount it will cost you, from start to finish).
- Choosing fonts for your self-published book (a list of the most common ones, and those that are free or easy to get).
- My Scrivener novel template (with all the organizational tricks I do when I write in Scrivener).
- Setting up a donation option (like PayPal, etc., for your readers to donate on your site).
- How to sell books like hot cakes (my own secret recipe).
- How often should you blog and indulge in social media? (I attempt to give you the answers.)
- How to write a good book summary (a quick guide).
- The secret to 5-star book reviews (you owe me cookies for this one).
- How to make an awesome book cover (a basic guide if you have no other option but to do it yourself.)
- Naming your novel (a guide to coming up with a title).
- How to start a blog (because you have to have one, if you want a place to shout for help and to share your journey as a writer).
- Giving books away for free and making money (how it works for me, with my model of giving away all my ebook for free on my site).
- Generating buzz around your book publication (steps to take to get people interested in buying your new book).