By now it’s old news that technology is allowing authors more control than ever over their work and their careers. The question remains, is all this control a good thing for authors?
Six months ago, I self-published my first novel, Lunatic Fringe. I took the decision to go the indie route very seriously, and now that the chips have fallen and the book is alive in the world, I’m happy with my choice. Self-publishing worked for me because I chose it not only for the pragmatic reasons often cited in news stories and blogs. I believed that the indie route worked best for my personality, my book, and my ideology. If you’re weighing your options, allow me to lay out 8 essential tenets I believe are key to finding true satisfaction in the self-publishing realm. There are dozens more variables to consider but I believe these will help you suss out your proclivities and maintain your integrity, ultimately providing more happiness with your choice.
1) Do it for the right reasons
These may not include: desperation, boredom or fear of rejection. To be a writer is to deal with rejection, even if you forgo the gatekeepers completely. The real rejection, the kind that cuts more deeply than that from a jaded new york editor or agent, is the kind you’ll get from readers. I’ve been lambasted by readers by not having a pro editor (I did), not proofreading (I did), making my book too niche (true, intentionally so), having too much sex (I humbly disagree), having icky sex (i.e. lesbian), having werewolf sex (which doesn’t even happen in the book) taking too long to get to the story, spending too much time on the werewolves, and not enough time on the werewolves. These are just criticisms from the people who took the time to write reviews. There are undoubtedly more cutting comments to be found among those who didn’t care to write a review. In real life I’ve also received the response of chilly silence. This is the reality of being a writer. For every reader who says you changed her life, there will be dozens more lining up to complain about the typo on page 189. If you can’t handle rejection, you may need to work on your self-esteem before you put something so terribly intimate into the world as a book.
Likewise, many people are rushing to self publish out of a desperate need to be heard, or unload the manuscript thinking they’ll make millions.
The fact is, there are ethical, ideological, and pragmatic reasons for self-publishing. Take some time to figure out why you’re choosing it. If it’s a last ditch effort after suffering hundreds of rejections, perhaps you should reevaulate the quality of your book to begin with. If you have a love for Maker Culture and the DIY aesthetic, you may be happier with the results of your efforts. I self-published because my book wasn’t a sure thing by anyone’s benchmarks, even small feminist publishing companies. I knew my book wouldn’t sell enough to support a publishing company’s bottom line, but I suspected it would do well enough to support me. And taking on the project from start to finish, preserving my radical politics, college setting, and odd stylistic choices worked well for me and my book. If you self-publish as a last ditch effort, that desperation will be visible to most people who see your book.
2) Do your research
The internet is full of free resources that will answer just about every question you have about indie publishing, and there are message boards full of kind, helpful writers who will fill in the blanks. After I self published my first novel, I fielded so many basic questions that I finally just combined everything I knew into a class I called Self-Publishing 101. I garnered most of the information from reading everything I could and then going through the process of self-publishing myself. You will still make silly, forehead slapping mistakes, but you’ll make fewer of them. Because this is a new frontier, you have to learn constantly. Every day it seems like new products, software and distributors are cropping up. Do yourself the favor of staying abreast of these new developments in service of your story.
3) Learn how to write
I know this sounds redundant and trite, but it’s true. I once met an author who bragged about going through his manuscript to change all the dialogue tags (“he said”, “she asked”) into more active verbs (“he intoned”, “she inquired”). While on the surface this sounds okay, the most basic writing guides will tell you to avoid this. My writer friend thought he was making his book more sophisticated, when in reality he was making it far, far worse. I was addicted to adverbs, and some of the originals even squirmed their way into my final manuscript. Do your research. Most of it, again, is free on the internet. Follow blogs by writers you admire and take their advice. Some of it may annoy you, but like that 7th grade teacher we all had once said: Learn the rules first, then learn how to break them.
4) Enlist support
The worst mistake I see new self-publishers make is headstrong individualism. You get the idea that since you’re “going it alone” in this blissfully defiant way, that you don’t need help. You do. Trust me, you do. If you don’t hire an editor, everyone will know. Okay, maybe a handful of easy-to-please readers won’t care, but you might be surprised at how many people care a lot. Even a casual reader, after a lifetime of reading only professionally vetted and edited books will be annoyed by an unedited book, even if they don’t know why.
This goes for covers, too. If you don’t know what a Photoshop layer is, outsource your cover. You likely spent a lot of time writing your book. Why would you slap some stock image and bad font on the cover? Unprofessional covers are the biggest sign of a slap-dash book. Even if your book is perfectly crafted and miraculously told, a bad cover will reek of self-publishing stigma and will keep far too many people from buying your masterpiece.
5) Budget more time and money than you think you need
Paying your graphic designer by the hour? Double your budget for it. Think you’ll be able to approve your proof right away? Spend a couple days rereading your book and give it to an eagle-eyed friend for typo proofing. You’ll save yourself many headaches by padding your schedule.
6) Be honest
Transparency endears you to readers, and the internet will eventually figure out if you’re lying. Grandstanding or bragging about the tons of money you’ve made or the stellar reviews you’ve received isn’t going to impress anyone, especially if you’re exaggerating or lying. You’re not doing other striving authors any favors by overinflating the realities of self-publishing either. Publishing companies can find out exactly how many books you’ve really sold in about 30 seconds. Don’t lie.
7) Love what you do
The #1 rule of marketing is to believe in your product. If you’re embarrassed by your book cover or that chapter you really should’ve deleted, you’ll never be able to pitch your book to potential readers with integrity. If you’re ashamed of self-publishing, don’t self-publish. The stigma of self-publishing is built on slap-dash, thoughtless books made by people who didn’t care enough to do it right. Don’t be one of those people. Be proud of your accomplishment and endeavor to improve with each book.
8) Play the Long Game
If you just want to get your book out into the world and never think about it again, you can. You probably won’t make much money or build a career this way, but you can still do it. For me, I knew during the writing of my first novel that I was in love. I wanted to write more books, and I couldn’t wait to finish one to move on to the next. After my first launch, there was a flurry of activity, but soon that died down and I had to focus on the future. Now, I’m working on the sequel to Lunatic Fringe, plus creating some smaller ebook projects on the side. This is my long game. Do you want to build a reputation with your work? Do you want to use your book to springboard to a new career? Do you want to explore different genres or teach others how to do what you did? All of these are options and self-publishing can help you get there, but to avoid the post-launch slump, you should have a bigger game than just one book. Whatever that game is, your book is a part of it, but just one part. Keep striving. Keep writing.
Allison Moon is the author of the novel Lunatic Fringe, which can be summed up in two words: Lesbian Werewolves. When not working on the sequel, she teaches workshops on creativity, writing, & publishing.