I know, I know. This is a column about cutting-edge electronics. So, apologies to gadget-heads as I take a brief sojourn into the land of self-publishing, which has become a lot more high-tech than a lot of people realize.
A few years ago I wrote a book. A novel. “Knife Music.” Contrary to what you might think based on my day job, it’s not a cyber-thriller, though it is a mystery/thriller with a medical/legal slant.
Its short history is this: I worked on it for several years, acquired a high-powered agent, had some brushes with major publishers, then, crickets.
I could have tried to go for a small publisher, but I was told mine was “a bigger book” with more commercial aspirations and prestigious small publishers were interested in more literary tomes. I also learned that many small publishers were being wiped out by the “self-publishing revolution,” a movement that’s not so unlike the “citizen journalism” or bloggers’ revolt of recent years that’s had a major impact on mainstream media, including this publication. The basic premise is anyone can become a small publisher. You call the shots. You retain the rights to your book. And you take home a bigger royalty than you’d normally get from a traditional publisher–if you sell any books.
Against the advice of my agent, I began perusing the big self-publishing companies’ Web sites and evaluating what they had to offer. Then I started poking around blogs and message boards to get customer testimonials. What I found was a veritable minefield with roads that forked in every direction and very few clear answers.
After much deliberation, I chose BookSurge, a print-on-demand (POD) outfit that Amazon owned along with the more no-frills POD operation CreateSpace. In 2009, after I published, Amazon merged BookSurge and CreateSpace under the CreateSpace brand name, so when I say Booksurge going forward, you should think CreateSpace. For those new to self-publishing, it’s worth noting that CreateSpace is considered a subsidy press or author-services company. The key to these companies is that books are printed only when someone orders a copy; neither author nor publisher is forced into buying a bunch of books and having to hawk them.
Royalties are better than what “real” publishers offer, but there are caveats, and true self-publishing pros prefer to cut out the subsidy press (which takes a cut) and go straight to a POD printer like Lightning Source to maximize profits. But I was less concerned about making money from this venture and more interested in putting together a well-packaged product that I wouldn’t be embarrassed to sell and some strangers might be willing to buy. If I did it right, I thought, and managed to get it some attention, some “real” publisher might come along and discover what a gem those 20 some odd publishers had passed on.
Well, thanks to a little publicity courtesy of Apple and a rejected— then accepted— free iPhone app, four and half months after I self-published “Knife Music,” my agent sold it to The Overlook Press, an independent publisher that put the book out in hardcover in July 2010. A few months later it came out as an e-book and did very well, rising to as high as No. 4 on the Kindle bestseller list. Later this year Overlook will publish my second novel, “The Big Exit.”
As I said, that’s the short story, and many things have changed — particularly for the e-book industry — since I first wrote this column back in December 2008. But most of what I learned along the way and what I picked up from other people who’ve also self-published, applies more than ever. As always, feel free to add your own experiences to the comments section, and thanks to all the readers who’ve e-mailed in the past.
Self-publishing is easy.
Self-publishing a print book is easy. Self-publishing an e-book is even easier.
Since this article is mainly about self-publishing an old-fashioned print book, here’s the skinny on what it takes to put together such a book:
You choose a size for your book, format your Word manuscript to fit that size, turn your Word doc into a PDF, create some cover art in Photoshop, turn that into a PDF, and upload it all to the self-publisher of your choice and get a book proof back within a couple of weeks (or sooner) if you succeeded in formatting everything correctly. You can then make changes and swap in new PDFs.
After you officially publish your book, you can make changes to your cover and interior text by submitting new PDFs, though your book will go offline (“out of stock”) for a week or two. Companies may charge a fee (around $25-$50) for uploading a new cover or new interior.
Both CreateSpace and Lulu offer good instructions for the DIY crowd and it’s not that difficult to come up with an OK-looking book (people’s definition of OK will vary).
2. Digital, not print, is your best bet.
The first thing I tell authors who tell me they want to publish a print book is that print should be their secondary focus. I’m advising people who have text-based books (no graphics, illustrations, or photos) to test the self-publishing waters with an e-book before moving on to hard copies. It’s much easier to produce an e-book, particularly when it comes to formatting and cover design. And you can also price a digital book for much less than a paperback, which makes it easier to sell (the majority of self-published print books cost $13.99 and up while the majority of indie e-books sell in the $.99-$5.99 range.
All that said, you can, of course, do both print and digital easily enough.
Once you have your book finalized in a Word or PDF file, it’s relatively easy to convert it into one of the many e-book formats — or just offer it as a download as a PDF. There are several e-publishers geared to “indie” authors, including Smashwords, BookBaby and Lulu, to name just a few. And needless to say, Amazon’s CreateSpace steers you toward uploading your book to the Kindle Store via Kindle Direct Publishing.
Note: Please see my article “How to self-publish an e-book” for more information on e-book creation.
3. Quality is good.
I can’t speak for all self-publishing companies, but the quality of POD books is generally quite decent. You can’t do a fancy matte cover (yet), but the books look and feel like “real” books. The only giveaway that you’re dealing with a self-published book would be if the cover were poorly designed — which, unfortunately, is too often the case.
4. Since self-publishing’s so easy, everybody’s doing it.
One of the unfortunate drawbacks of having a low barrier of entry into a suddenly hot market is that now everybody and their brother and sister is an author. That means you’re dealing with a ton of competition, some of which is made up of hustlers, charlatans, and a bunch of people in between.
The growth of indie publishing in the U.S. has been huge over the last couple of years. While that growth has started to level off as fewer writers have unpublished novels in their closets to publish, you can still expect to go up against thousands of other motivated indie authors.
5. Good self-published books are few and far between.
Again, because the barrier to entry is so low, the majority of self-published books are pretty bad. If I had to put a number on it, I’d say less than 5 percent are decent and less than 1 percent are really good. A tiny fraction become monster success stories, but every every few months, you’ll hear about someone hitting it big (for those who don’t know already the “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy was initially self-published).
6. The odds are against you.
The average print self-published book sells about 100-150 copies — or two-thirds to three-quarters of your friends and family combined (and don’t count on all your Facebook acquaintances buying). I don’t have a source for this statistic, but I’ve seen this stated on several blogs and as a Publishers Weekly article titled “Turning Bad Books into Big Bucks” noted, while traditional publishers aim to publish hundreds of thousands of copies of a few books, self-publishing companies make money by publishing 100 copies of hundreds of thousands of books.
7. Creating a “professional” book is really hard.
Barrier to entry may be low, but creating a book that looks professional and is indistinguishable from a book published by a “real” publishing house is very difficult and requires a minimum investment of a few thousand dollars (when all was said and done, I’d put in around $7,500, which included about $2,500 in marketing costs). You wonder why “real” books take nine months to produce — and usually significantly longer. Well, I now know why. It’s hard to get everything just right (if you’re a novice at book formatting, Microsoft Word will become your worst enemy). And once you’ve finally received that final proof, you feel it could be slightly better.
8. Have a clear goal for your book.
This will help dictate what service you go with. For instance, if your objective is to create a book for posterity’s sake (so your friends and family can read it for all eternity), you won’t have to invest a lot of time or money to produce something that’s quite acceptable. Lulu is probably your best bet. However, if yours is a commercial venture with big aspirations, things get pretty tricky.
9. Even if it’s great, there’s a good chance your book won’t sell.
If your book is really mediocre, don’t expect it to take off. But even if it’s a masterpiece, there’s a good chance it won’t fly off the shelves (and by shelves, I mean virtual shelves, because most self-published books don’t make it into brick-and-mortar stores). In other words, quality isn’t a guarantee of success. You’ll be lucky to make your investment back, let alone have a “hit” that brings in some real income. Don’t quit your day job yet.
10. Niche books tend to do best.
This seems to be the mantra of self-publishing. Nonfiction books with a well-defined topic and a nice hook to them can do well, especially if they have a target audience that you can focus on. Religious books are a perfect case in point. And fiction? Well, it’s tough, but some genres do better than others. Indie romance/erotica novels, for instance, have thrived in the e-book arena.
Note: If it’s any consolation, the majority of fiction books — even ones from “real” publishers — struggle in the marketplace. That’s why traditional publishers stick with tried-and-true authors with loyal followings.
11. Buy your own ISBN — and create your own publishing house.
If you have market aspirations for your book, buy your own ISBN (International Standard Book Number) and create your own publishing company.
The biggest mistake people make when it comes to self-publishing is that they expect to just put out a book and have it magically sell. They might even hire a publicist and expect something to happen. It’s just not so. You have to be a relentless self-promoter. Unfortunately, a lot people just don’t have the stomach or time for it.
What’s the secret to marketing your book successfully? Well, the first thing I advise — and I’m not alone here — is to come up with a marketing plan well before you publish your book. The plan should have at least five avenues for you to pursue because chances are you’re going to strike out on a couple of lines of attack. It’s easy to get discouraged, so you have to be ready to move on to plan c, d, and e (and the rest of the alphabet) pretty quickly.
These days there’s a lot of talk about a “blog strategy,” and many well-known authors do virtual book tours where they offer up interviews to various blogs. You probably won’t have that luxury, but you can certainly research what blogs might be interested in your book and prepare pitches for them. There are social media campaigns to wage, local media angles to pursue, organizations to approach, and all kinds of out-of-the-box gambits you can dream up. None of this will cost you a whole lot — except time and perhaps a little pride.
Then there’s the stuff you pay for. And it’s tricky to judge what’s a good investment and what’s not because the results vary so much from book to book. A friend of mine who has a “real” book from a traditional publisher experimented with placing $1,000 in Facebook ads targeted to people in “cold” states (his book is called the History of the Snowman and it does very well around Christmas). He’s still trying to figure out what impact the ads had, but Facebook does have some interesting marketing opportunities. Google AdWords/Keywords is another popular option. And a number of self-serve ad networks are popping up, including Blogards Book Hive, which allows you to target a number of smaller book blogs for relatively affordable rates.
The author MJ Rose has a marketing service called AuthorBuzz that caters to both self-publishers and traditional publishers. She says the best thing for self-publishers is a blog ad campaign–it starts at about $1,500 for a week of ads (the design work is included) and heads up in increments of $500. She says: “We place the ads in subject-related blogs, not book blogs. For instance, if it’s a mystery about an antiques dealer, we don’t just buy blogs for self-identified readers — who are not the bulk of book buyers — but rather I’ll find a half dozen blogs about antiques, culture, art and investments and buy the ads there and track them.” Rose claims she can get your book in front of at least a half a million people with that initial investment. She also says that you can’t really spend too much, you can just spend poorly.
I agree. However, I can’t tell you what impact a week or month of ads on blogs will have on your specific book’s sales. There are simply too many variables.
Bonus tip: When it comes to self-promotion, there’s a fine line between being assertive and being overly aggressive in an obnoxious way. It also doesn’t impress people when all you tweet about is your book (the same goes for your Facebook and Google+ posts). As one friend told me, the state you want to achieve is what she likes to call “comfortably tenacious.”
20. Getting your book in bookstores sounds good, but that shouldn’t be a real concern.
You may have always wanted to see your book in a bookstore but bookstores aren’t keen on carrying self-published books and it’s extremely difficult to get good placement in the store for your book so chances are no one will see the three copies the store has on hand anyway. Furthermore, your royalty drops on in-store sales. Some of the self-publishing outfits offer distribution through Ingram. CreateSpace offers its Expanded Distribution program for a $25 a year fee. It uses Baker & Taylor, as well as Ingram, as well as CreateSpace Direct to make your book available “to certified resellers through our wholesale website.” You also get distribution to Amazon Europe (Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.es, Amazon.fr, Amazon.it, Amazon.de).