Self-publishing advice – Take out the ‘Self’
Do you want your book to be a success – to be well-received, to sell and/or to earn some money? “Self-publishing” means you or your company are cited as the publisher, but do some of us take the “self” message one step too far? Are you trying to do as much of the process yourself, or will you call upon others for help – paid or unpaid, and whom?
There are three components that determine how well a self-published book does, says Helen Bryant, Director of the literary consultancy, Cornerstones, drawing on a survey she conducted recently of their 7,000 author contacts.
SelfPublishing Magazine / Spring 2014
First, a good, slickly written story – which may require a lot of editing, tweaking and proofreading. Second, good marketing – be it using social media, word of mouth, or book reviews. And finally – “really important, which lets down so many authors,” she warns – a jacket with a really good blurb, that does not look self-published.
Editing and proofreading; marketing; cover design. How many of us have all those skills – in addition to writing, of course?
“Authors really need feedback on their writing,” says Helen. “Many authors do not understand self-editing techniques.” And it was because authors did not know how to present their work – and therefore got overlooked by publishing companies – that Helen set up a literary consultancy, whose services include running workshops (at conferences and creative writing courses) to show authors how.
“For example,” she explains, “if they need to raise the tension in their book: what does that mean, and how do they do it?”
Those who invite others to comment on their work will know, deep down, where and what there may be problems, says Helen. If they get the right kind of feedback it will resonate. They need to unearth their inner-editor, and their confidence, to make the changes, she says. And having an outside expert eye gives them the confidence to trust in themselves.
“But not all of us are open to comment,” she continues. “A small minority think their manuscript is fine and argue endlessly about the points raised.” In Helen’s view: “Their personality can get in the way of their own work.”
Others are not ready for different reasons. To those who are still writing, still finding their voice, it would be too early in the writing process for Cornerstones to give feedback. “Self-editing can be a harsh process,” explains Helen. “It can really damage the writer’s confidence if they are not yet ready for it.”
But it is not only literary consultancies that advise authors to get help with editing. “It’s OK to get friends to tidy up your text, but a lot of authors would benefit from more professional copy-editing and proofreading,” says Cathi Poole, the Publishing Manager at York Publishing Services (YPS).
She gives the same advice on book layout and cover design, but acknowledges that how much people turn to others for help can depend on their budget. “Formatting a manuscript in word can look a bit ‘cheap’,” she warns. “We advise that they make their book look as best they can – it is in their interests that it does. Sometimes we say it diplomatically, but people accept our advice.”
Set up a team to help you
One author who did not hesitate to call upon the skills of others is Gillian Lake, who used a book coach (for guidance/editing) and others, and last year self-published her first book, Coping with Dying: A handbook for carers and cared for.
“Having others to help helped my own confidence,” says Gillian. “I had the idea, and I could sit down with my pen and paper, but having a book coach helped me structure things and kept me going. I was quite motivated, but it was also good to have a date in the diary [to meet up] – a deadline for me to get another chapter written.”
Not being computer savvy, she also called upon a graphic designer (her daughter’s boyfriend) to translate her cover ideas into reality, and a typist – having written her manuscript long-hand, on her days off from working as a palliative care nurse.
“I found publishing a whole new world,” says Gillian. “I thought ‘I don’t know anything about this.’ I felt I wanted people’s skills around me; I didn’t have them, so I bought them.”
“Having a team around you is really important,” she continues. “Some people might be able to cope with going it alone, but I found the ‘self’ bit of self-publishing a bit daunting. It may be OK for people in business or those in office-based jobs. But it would be very solitary, and not for me. And I think we need other people around us, to guide us.”
Gillian hasn’t kept an exact record of all her costs – somewhere around £1,000 (excluding printing), she believes – but she is not phased by the thought, concluding: “It was 100 per cent worth it and I would do it all again next time.”
Her books are selling well, but so far only using her own contacts. She hasn’t yet done any wider marketing; it’s another new area for her to learn and/or pay for – and she still hopes to attract a mainstream publisher.
Many will sympathise with Gillian. Marketing requires thinking and choosing about so many possible ways of promotion that it’s hard to know where to start – and where it is easy to spend a lot of time and money with little result.
It’s an area where many of us should call for help, says Laura Austin, the co-founder of Book Machine, which runs two websites and regular face-to-face meetings for around 4,000 people interested in publishing.
As she points out, the introverted skill set that make you a good writer are the opposite from the more extroverted ones needed to be good at marketing.
As for securing “high-street” marketing – big displays in bookshops and national newspaper reviews – they may be beyond all of us, whether working alone or with others. Indeed, it is about the only area that Cathi at YPS feels is out of their reach, where they can’t guarantee to help self-published authors.
As she explains, big publishers have such a network of contacts with reviewers, etc. that independent publishers can’t usually compete.
Laura agrees. She says, although the book market is becoming more of an open playing field, and self-publishers with good quality content and the right marketing can compete, it is always going to be hard for writers of mainstream fiction, where big brands and marketing budgets dominate. It can be done, she says, but more feasible is using the web to find a community of interest for more niche markets – fiction or non-fiction.
Many authors do realise the need to call upon others – budget permitting – be they family, friends, freelancers or self-publishing houses. So is the “self” in self-publishing a useful and accurate description – or giving the wrong message to new writers, and readers?
The term is also out of date, says Cathi, who prefers the term “independent publishing.” As she points out, many authors are now writing several books, i.e. they are more like a small independent publisher than just an individual. And second, although self-published books used to stand out – for example, they were an unusual size and/or looked like they had been produced at home – nowadays they don’t.
“In the old days people would say ‘it looks really rotten’, but these days they look like every other book on the shelf,” she says.
Calling it self-publishing is ridiculous said a mainstream publisher speaking at a publishing event held at London’s Hospital Club, before Christmas. In their eyes, the implication behind self-publishing – of taking on the entire process on ones own – is where many authors go wrong. As they pointed out, even if you are publishing on your own you still need a team: the infrastructure; an editor; someone to design your cover. Their message was: If you think you can do it all yourself you are mistaken.
So, if you want your book to be well-received, and to sell beyond your immediate circle of contacts, working with others looks like a clear message – and worth paying for, too.
To demonstrate the gains to be had – and the scale of changes sometimes required to get a draft manuscript into shape – Helen at Cornerstones summarises how their editing service helped a recent client. The author came to them with three ideas, which they turned it into one.
He then wrote 500,000 words, which, after two more steers from Cornerstones, he reduced to 60,000. Yes, it was a lot of work and took two years, but … after Helen pitched the idea with US agents the author secured a six-figure deal.
But that is an extreme; it can be far quicker and easier. On the internet there are loads of websites to help you get published – be it putting you in touch with freelance publishing services (e.g. bookmachine.me) or getting help with and feedback on your writing (e.g. authonomy.com, WEbook.com and wattpad.com). Some of them are also frequented by agents looking for new authors.
“Their common thread,” says Lauara, “is their sense of community – enabling people to get instant feedback on their work, and to access skills.
“The next generation of writers will find it a lot easier,” she predicts. Through these kind of websites people will get used to writing, getting feedback, and the editing process. For many of us today, doing that with people one does not know, over the web, might still seem a bit risky and/or strange.
But for future generations it will be more natural… and self-publishing may not even be called self-publishing.
Quick Tip – How to Review Your Own Text
By Helen Bryant
Read your work aloud, listening out for anything that makes you stop or question something. For example, would a character do or say that? Is your writing going off on a tangent? Are you losing interest or getting bored? For any of these, make a note in the margin and come back to it later to sort it out. A character may need to be dropped; the pace may need to be picked up; etc. “It is about learning to question your own work,” says Helen.