Since I first self-published, eighteen months ago, I’ve been asked frequently about different aspects of the process. Lately, the emails concerning self-publishing have picked up. Up to now, I’ve answered these inquiries individually, but I’ve done it so much now, I thought I’d just write it down in one place to save time. I am by no means the expert on self-publishing, and would never represent myself as the spokesperson for the diverse community of authors who choose this method of publication.
I’m not sure I like the term “Indie.” It implies independence, and yes, I am independent in that I make the decisions about what and when I publish. I am called an Independent publisher, but so are Bella and Bold Strokes. Anyone publishing outside of the major New York houses are considered Independent. Case in point, how many "Indie" self-published LGBT fiction novels made the finalist in the Independent Publisher's Awards for 2011? The answer, none. The finalist were all from traditional publishers. So, I find the Indie label a bit misleading. The "self-published" label has its own bias attached. The myth prevails that only people who cannot find a publisher "do it themselves." I hear the constant clamor about the quality of self-published books. Here's my suggestion. Most of the books for sale on Amazon offer a preview before buying. Take advantage of that. If you don't know within the first ten pages whether you want to finish the book or not, at least you can make an informed decision. I don't think an entire industry should be damned because some bad books are out there. There's a hell of a lot of bad music I won't listen to either. I sure don't have to play the whole song to know that, and I'm not going to stop buying Indie music because people are uploading crap and selling it.
In addition, I do not operate independently of the traditional norms of publishing in many ways. I run a publishing business pretty much the same way the publishing houses do. I am self-published, but I am not alone or independent in the process. I use the services of professionals, from editors to accountants, publicists, designers, and lawyers. I have two jobs, one as a publisher and the other as a writer. As the publisher, it is my responsibility to make sure my team is operating efficiently. It is time consuming and takes discipline to juggle all the hats of self-publishing. There are days when I would love to hand off some of the responsibilities to someone else, but those days are few, and the hard work is very rewarding. Keep in mind that this is my full-time job and I work pretty much seven days a week. I’m not sure I could manage as well, if I had another job too.
In that vein, I am often asked how I have been able to write so many books in such a short time. My answer, I write almost every day. I am fortunate to be able to do this. My house is often a wreck, the laundry always needs doing, I’m rarely out of my pajamas, and I’m basically a hermit and a slave to the keyboard. I am extremely lucky to have a spouse that doesn’t mind sitting in the room with me and not having a conversation for hours, while I peck away at the computer. She is not concerned when I write all night and nap on and off the next day between writing binges. My kid is grown and the fur babies don't seem to mind my preoccupation with the fictional worlds I create. As long as the ideas keep coming and the muse blesses me with words, I’ll keep writing. Another advantage is that I’m a priority for my editor. We can go through the editing process much faster, because I’m not waiting in line with other authors. I don’t know how long I’ll keep up my current publishing rate, but I’m riding this horse until she turns to the barn.
Let me preface the rest of this blog with, “I did it all wrong, but learned from my mistakes.” I published without knowing a few things that I know now, so the following advice is based on my experiences alone. Other authors may have different takes on the process. The only right answers are the ones that work for each individual. Read, read, and read about the self-publishing process. That’s how I started my journey and I’ve continued to read about self-publishing from some of the most successful authors out there. I learn from others. I hope some of you will find what I have to say helpful, as well.
First, and most important, hire a professional editor. I know that's hard to do on limited income, and that is the reason my first four books were unedited. I was criticized for that and very lucky to have been given a second chance to publish with an editor. If your first novel is so riddled with mistakes it turns the readers off, you will have difficulty attracting them to your future work. You cannot edit your own writing and that smart friend of yours is free, but not a professional editor. Invest the money. It will pay off in the end. I am in the process of re-releasing the first four novels, now in cleaner condition. If one of them is the first book of mine a reader picks up, having the unedited ones out there is not helping me. It’s worth the money to me to clean them up.
Second, before you spend the money on an editor, find beta readers willing to say more than, "I liked it." You need honest appraisals from a variety of readers. My beta readers are well read, and from all over the world. They include experts in some of the fields I write about. The differing perspectives are very informative. One of my betas is a classically educated executive that reminds me often why I wish like hell I had taken Latin. She keeps me honest and has had many belly laughs at my expense. Seek out beta readers that can help you become a better writer. You will find out soon enough which ones can offer honest, helpful feedback. Beta readers are invaluable. Collect them and treat them well.
Third, if you do send your manuscript to a publisher, pay attention to what they say in response. If you are accepted then they will help you with the editing process, so you can skip my first step, but do use beta readers before submitting. If you are rejected, read and process what the reasons were. You can learn from these rejections. That said, my one and only submission to a publisher was turned down flatly, after I had already self-published a best seller. I believed in the book. I self-published the exact book that was rejected. That book hit #1 on Amazon and stayed there for a very long time. Lesson learned: publishers don’t always know what readers will read. If you think it’s worth publishing, do it, and find out for yourself. Note: see step one.
Fourth, book covers are important. Spend the time to do the best work or hire a professional. This is what the reader sees first. Make it interesting. I design all my book covers. (I did have help on Molly: House on Fire.) My first four book covers were poor examples, and I have new covers for the re-release. I misunderstood the importance of a good cover in the beginning. I have a background in advertising and design, so I have a bit of an advantage in working with the various programs. My advice is to look at covers you like. Ask yourself, what it is about the cover that attracts you? Use what you learn to create a cover for your novel. Make it relevant to the topic and eye catching. Remember it must look good and be easily read in a thumbnail size for online sales. I will add here that you must own the rights to the picture you use on your cover. If you use a picture with a person’s image, make sure the model rights are included also.
Fifth, formatting your e-book correctly is extremely important. Make sure you check the uploaded file thoroughly in whatever format you use. I hire someone to format my books and it is worth every penny to avoid the headaches. Your print file will need to be formatted as well. Be sure you know how to embed styles in your document, and that those styles transfer correctly to whatever format your on-demand print company suggests. Createspace offers templates for the size of book you plan to print.
Sixth, word of mouth sells books. This particular part of publishing is no different for traditionally published authors and self-published ones. Cultivate readers, form or join discussion groups, have Facebook pages and blogs to interact with them. Make sure your webpage directs visitors to the site for purchasing your books. People who like what you write will spread the word. Words of warning: Manage your social networking time wisely. Schedule the time you will spend and stick to it. Your blog should not be exclusively about being an author. Add personal stories and opinion pieces to keep the visitors interested in returning. As fascinating as the process of writing is to us authors, it’s not that interesting to non-writers. Fans don’t buy People Magazine to read about the acting process. They want to know about the real lives of their favorite stars. Also, do not bombard readers with “buy, buy, buy.” Do not flood chat rooms and message boards with “all about me” or “look at my great review” posts. Too much exposure can backfire. If you write a good book, the publicity will take care of itself. You need only gently prod it occasionally.
As far as the actual uploading of files to Amazon and other online distributers, I suggest you read everything in their help files. Ask questions of the support personnel, if you’re confused. Read the fine print. There are step-by-step guides out there for this part of self-publishing. Buy your own ISBN numbers from Bowker.
I’m going to go ahead and answer a few more of the questions I’m often asked. If you recognize your question, don’t be offended that it's listed here. If I answer it below, it's been asked by quite a few people. Chances are, I’ve already explained my answer to you in a private email. I’m not cold or unfeeling, and I encourage everyone to follow their dreams. I am simply trying to follow mine and can’t take on more than I already have. So…
- No, I don’t want to write your story. I appreciate your sharing, but only you can write your unique story. I have enough going on in my own fictional world, I doubt I'll run out of ideas any time soon. I’m sorry I can’t help you, but I do encourage you to write your story down. That’s how it started for me. Getting the complete story written is the first step to becoming a published author, then follow the steps above. Note: See step one.
- No, I can’t help you edit your manuscript or beta read for you. Please don’t send me your work. I really have a lot on my plate and to be honest, do you really want the comma queen editing your manuscript. There is a reason I use beta readers and hire an editor. It’s not that I don’t want to help other authors, I just don’t have the time or the expertise, and I’m fairly new at this. I won't pretend to be something I'm not. I am not an editor, nor do I think I would be a good mentor. I'm still working it all out for myself. There are a lot of experienced authors willing to help. The Golden Crown Literary Society has a mentor program for fledgling authors. I’m sure there are others. Word of advice, don’t fall for the “Let us help you publish” scams. There are plenty of free services without forking over hundreds of dollars.
- No, I will not write a review of your book. I rarely make public statements about another author’s work. If I do post a quick note, you can rest assured I have read the book and liked it, but you will never see my name on a full review. I am a writer. I am not a book critic. I do not write reviews or critique books, and believe me there is a distinct difference between the two. I have a healthy respect for those people that choose to put their stamp of approval or disapproval on a novel. It can be difficult to put your opinions out there, as difficult as publishing your novel and having it dissected by others. Hats off to those brave souls, I am simply not one of them.
- I’m going to answer this last one, because believe it or not, I am asked this very often. The question is always, “Are you really making a living as a lesbian fiction writer?” Despite the personal nature of the question, I’ll answer it. Yes, even though I have heard it said often, “You can’t support yourself writing lesbian fiction,” I am making a living writing books. I’m not rich, but I’m much better off than I was on a public school teacher’s salary. And lest you think my spouse's salary makes this possible, she's thinking about quitting her job and coming to work for me. I'm doing just fine, but I know I would not be making the royalties I do, if I were with a traditional publisher. That's just a fact.
There, I think I’ve covered the most frequent questions I receive about publishing. I probably did not say anything that hasn’t been said before. Bottom line is, there is no magic wand to wave over a manuscript and instantly have a smash hit on your hands. Traditionally published or self-published, it’s all hard work. I wish for those of you seeking to publish the best of luck. Remember, there are very few things in life that are worth anything, if you don’t have to work for it.