Should I or Shouldn’t I? Advice from the self-publishing trenches

This post begins with a caveat. A King Kong sized caveat. I am not an expert in indie/self-publishing. I am not some Mr. Miyagi, here to help you discover universal truths about yourself and your quest for publication as you wax my car. I am not yet making a profit as a self-published author. (I make money, yes, but at this point all the money that shows up at my door promptly turns around and marches right back into the next book—it’s fun to watch it as it passes by, though). I wrote this post for a completely selfish reason: to answer the many questions about indie/self-publishing I have been asked in the past year, in one convenient place. If you are considering publishing your own work, this post is intended only to help with your decision, not to make it for you.

I am not your mother!

There, that’s the warning out of the way. Onto the fun bit.

Yesterday I met an author friend of mine for coffee to discuss my thoughts on self-publishing. I have had a surprising number of these conversations with writers— aspiring, new, experienced, and traditionally published—since Josh and I indie published Warpworld in October 2012. Surprising because, yeesh, I’m new to all this myself. But I guess what I have to offer, however limited, is experience. I’ve done it. I’ve slogged through the jungle of confusing and often contradictory information and come out the other side with a finished product that, so far, readers seem to find pretty cool. Also, I think word has spread that I will offer the unvarnished truth—a valuable commodity in a business infested with dream-sucking vampires and con-artists.

I’m asked many questions but what these conversations all boil down to is simply writers trying to decide if indie publishing is the right path for them. I can’t make that decision for you (see also: mother, I am not your), but I can tell you what I’ve seen, experienced, and learned so far, and I can (hopefully) provide you with enough holy water to fend off  the dream-sucking vampires. Rather than ramble endlessly (which I could easily do on this topic), I’m going to list some questions that you should ask yourself before you make your decision. Where it’s appropriate, I’ll include examples from my own experiences.

NOTE: If you don’t at least try to answer these questions honestly, there’s not much point in asking them. <– There’s an example of that unvarnished truth I mentioned.

Am I good enough?

You could ask “Is my book good enough?” but if you hope to make a living as an author you will need to write more than one book. If you hope to make a living as an indie author, you will need to write a lot of books. A lot of good books. Quickly. What this means is that your writing skills must be at a level where you can produce a minimum of one quality, average-sized book per year. (Depending on genre, an average-sized book is a manuscript between 55-100K words).

The self-published authors I’ve seen fail most epically and complain most loudly are those who have chosen this path as a shortcut to publication. Patience grasshopper. Wax on, wax off, and all that. You don’t learn how to throw a punch and then immediately jump in the octagon with Georges St. Pierre, (unless of course you enjoy being a human origami project).

Okay, so I’m a little bit Mr. Miyagi.

The gatekeepers of traditional publishing may miss some winners, but most of the rejections they deliver are legitimate. Most first manuscripts are some degree of poopy. Mine sure was. Learning to recognize when your writing is poopy is part of the process. Don’t skip it. The best advertising for an indie author is word of mouth. You don’t want those words to be, “Man, that book was poopy!”

Factors to consider:

  • How long have you been writing? If you started six months ago, chances are you’re not there yet.
  • What level of feedback have you received on your work? Praise from friends and family may give us all the warm fuzzies but it’s a poor measure of your writing ability. You need to hear the sometimes-ugly truth from professionals in the business—authors, editors, agents—before you can make an objective assessment of your skill..
  • Have you been published anywhere? Traditionally, writers honed their craft by submitting short stories to paying markets. Don’t skip this step simply because you are anxious to get published. The lessons to be learned in this process are invaluable. Also, sometimes they accept your stories and THEY SEND YOU MONEY!

Do I have the time?

All authors must invest chunks of time into promoting their work. For unknown indie authors, the chunks are much bigger. Even for a new author, a publisher will do a minimal amount of promotion and they have the benefit of industry clout that you—tiny, unknown scribbler—do not. This means you will have to work harder, smarter, and longer to achieve the same results.

Read the fine print: Self-publish and you sell your soul to the clock.

My writing partner, Josh, says I work salt mine hours. (He also says that organizing my soup cans in alphabetical order is excessive, so he’s not always to be believed). I do write full time. Sometimes I write seven days a week but usually a minimum of five. My work days range from eight to fourteen hours. On average, I spend about thirty percent of my work time on promotion—direct and indirect—and business-related research. Note, that’s not story research, that’s reading, watching, and listening to podcasts, articles, blog posts, and stories about the business of selling books.

So, let’s say I work an average of sixty hours per week. Thirty percent of that would be eighteen hours. Holy crap! Eighteen hours per week spent entirely on business research, marketing, and promotion. (*Note I count time spent on social media and writing blog posts as part of this).

That’s just the PR part of the job (my least favourite part and the part that I would gladly trade for a box of used Kleenex). As mentioned, you also have to keep writing more books. Quickly.

Oh, and you have to read in there, somewhere. Writers must be readers.

You may also want to have a life, too, but that’s optional.

*There are many opinions on how much time you should spend marketing your self-published book. This is the amount of time I put in and I am constantly adjusting my strategies based on results. YMMV etc.

Factors to consider:

  • How many free hours per day/week do you have to do this job? Do the math.
  • If you commit to enough hours to write, market, and research to be successful, will other important parts of your life suffer? Partners/spouses, kids, and pets also require a percentage of your time. Don’t wait for a suitcase at the door to tell you that you’ve been neglecting someone you love. (Cats are so unforgiving).

What are my goals?

This is a critical question because your answers will not only determine whether self-publishing is the right path for you but also what that path will look like. Uncle Billy the hobby writer, whose one and only book is a riveting memoir about his life as an emu taxidermist, will have completely different needs than you, with your ten-book space opera. Give serious thought to your long, mid-term, and short term goals. Write them down. Be as specific as possible.

Here’s what some of my writing goals look like, (edited for length—I’m a bit obsessive with lists):

Long term: A life-long career as a published novelist. Write the best quality stories I can, but with an emphasis on reader enjoyment rather than critical praise. Earn a living from my writing but also maintain a high degree of creative freedom—i.e. I won’t write books just for a paycheque, I must love the story. Remain open to writing in a variety of genres, (though my first love is speculative fiction). Have fun telling stories and enjoy the ride!

Mid-term: Build an audience of 10-15K readers. Publish all five books in the Warpworld series, as well as “shadow stories” connected to the series. Write a screenplay for the first Warpworld book, try to sell it. Rebuild my ego after my Warpworld screenplay fails to sell. Complete at least one solo manuscript and sell to a traditional publisher. Continue to write short stories and submit to paying markets and competitions. Present as a panelist/speaker/instructor at workshops, festivals, and conventions. Have fun telling stories and enjoy the ride!

Short term: Publish the first three Warpworld novels within three years. Attend a minimum of four professional events per year. Get a short story published in one reputable paying market and/or place in one reputable competition per year. Build a readership of 5K within three years. Have fun telling stories and enjoy the ride!

You’ll notice that in my mid-term goals I want to have a traditionally published manuscript. This is not an admission that indie publishing is inferior, but it is an acknowledgment that to take my career to the next level the smartest path would be to work as a hybrid author. If my stated goal is to make a living as a writer, then I would be foolish to ignore the exposure I could gain by working with a traditional publisher.

Also, I won’t have to sneak into so many parties at conventions.

You’ll also notice that fun is a component of all my goals but money is not. Don’t get me wrong, money is great and I would happily roll naked in a bouncy castle full of it but there are lots of jobs I could do if all I wanted was money. If writing stops being fun, it’s time for me to reassess.

That is the purpose of writing out goals—figuring out what you want and then designing plans to get what you want. Your goals, more than any other single factor, can tell you if self-publishing is a good choice.

Factors to consider:

  • Career or hobby? If you write solely as a hobby, then self-publishing can be easy, inexpensive, and fun. Publish that emu taxidermy memoir! Why not? But if you plan to make a living as a writer, you might want to consider a hybrid of indie and traditional publishing.
  • What’s your genre? Know your market. Some genres fare better in indie publishing than others.
  • How clear are your goals? If your goals are fuzzy, you probably need more time. Relax. It’s not a competition.

Am I am entrepreneur?

Hold on while I take off my toque and straighten my tie. There.

Publishing is a business. If you plan to write as a career, whether as an indie, hybrid, or traditionally published author, you need to understand this. We all love the artistic and creative side of writing; it’s the reason most of us put fingers to keyboard, (or pen to paper for those stuck in the previous century), but once the art is done, you need to sell it. YOU NEED TO BE A SALESPERSON!

Did that last sentence make you throw up in your mouth a little bit? Well, get used to that vomit flavour. Learn to love it.

Self-published authors must possess a good amount of entrepreneurial spirit, loads of self-discipline, and believe strongly enough in their work/art/product to sell it to a bunch of strangers. E-publishing has leveled the playing field in many ways but you are still David against Goliath, except you don’t even have a rock—you have a Nerf gun and Goliath has a rocket launcher and laser vision. Small, medium, and large publishers have fatter wallets than you, decades of experience, and connections in all the right places. In a market flooded with books, you will have to be creative, determined, and unfailingly positive to stand a chance of getting seen and surviving.

You will also need a wide range of skills, or have friends with a wide range of skills, or enough money to hire professionals with the skills you need. And be careful with the friend thing because unless you’re paying your friends you really can’t demand anything from them, which can lead to de-friending in a hurry.

Everything takes time, everything has a cost. There will be math involved. You have been warned.

Here’s a quasi-breakdown of some of the jobs Josh and I do, and the jobs we hire out for to produce Warpworld:

  • Beta reading/substantive editing/copy and line editing: Hire out/friends/writing peers (aprox $1300/book)
  • Website: Kristene, with tons of help from Mr. Kristene (aprox $150/year)
  • Blog posts: Kristene and Josh (minor costs for buying images $5-100/year)
  • Cover Design: Kristene and Josh doing mock-up, hire out for final product (aprox $200-300/book)
  • Typesetting and ebook formatting: Hire out (aprox $100-300/book)
  • Uploading to vendors: Josh
  • Social media: Kristene
  • Advertising/Marketing: Kristene, Josh, and hire out. (costs vary widely but count on anywhere from $300-1000 as a minimum)

For one book, with Josh and I doing most of the work ourselves, and hiring professionals who will work within our microscopic budget, we still run a minimum cost of about $2000 to edit, produce, and market a book that can stand side-by-side with a traditionally published book. $2000 is a low estimate and the fewer tasks you can do yourself the more your costs will rise.

If the thought of running your own business and risking your own money makes you jelly-legged, then you might be better off going a traditional route: seek an agent and find a publisher willing to buy your manuscript. If the idea of this challenge excites you, then you might be cut out for the exciting life of an entrepreneur, or perhaps a career as a poisonous snake wrangler!

Factors to consider:

  • How much of the work can you do yourself? And not just “do” but “do well”. Nothing will turn away potential readers more quickly than work that looks like your blind, five-year-old niece did it.
  • Are you a salesperson? You will have to sell your book both online and in real life. How well do you handle speaking in public and to strangers?
  • Do you have the money to invest? There is no escaping the costs of producing a book. Even if you can do everything, you will still want to hire a copy/line editor at the very least. Are you willing to spend that money knowing you may not make it back for years or (worst case scenario), ever?

Am I ready to embrace indie?

Perceptions are changing but the stigma of Self-publishing = Vanity Press remains. Sadly, for good reason. Thanks to the ease of epublishing, the number of poopy self-published books is staggering. For every Hugh Howey out there, there are legions of lazy/unaware/just-plain-poopy writers who poop volumes of garbage into the e-world.

Howey’s my indie author hero, by the way. You should run out immediately and buy his books. Actually, you don’t have to run anywhere, you can buy them through the magic of the interwebz! Here’s a link: www.hughhowey.com. Tell him I sent you. Ask him why he hasn’t answered any of the six hundred and seventy-two emails I sent him this month. Tell him I know that the restraining order was just him playing hard to get.

Ahem. Where was I? Oh, yes. Me.

I did not make the decision to self-publish easily. In fact, when Josh first mentioned the idea I hissed and then tried to drive a wooden stake into his heart. (He’s never really forgiven me for that—so touchy). I would have resisted indefinitely if I didn’t know that we had written a damned good book, that we were both committed to a long term plan, and that we possessed enough skills and money to put out a book that could stand proudly on a bookstore shelf next to any traditionally published work. It also helped that public opinion about indie publishing was undergoing a momentous change. Even so, “indie author” felt a little too close to “MTV Canada” for my taste.

It wasn’t until after we were ready to release our second book, after we had received praise from readers that weren’t our parents, and after I realized I hadn’t been shunned from the professional writing world, that I was ready to embrace my title.

I say embrace, not accept. Accept infers some degree of reluctance. When you embrace indie, doors open, curtains are lifted, and woodland creatures perch on your shoulders and sing. Being indie means you can discard old rules and make up new ones. You can hold your head up proudly because what really matters is your readers—theirs is the only approval you need. READERS, YOU ARE MADE OF AWESOME AND I OFFER YOU AN ETERNAL HIGH FIVE!

When Josh and I were discussing our plans for the second Warpworld book, we decided that instead of seeking out prestigious authors and reviewers for quotes—let’s face it, we weren’t going to get more than maybe one or two anyway and that would require copious amounts of begging and/or bribing—we would include snippets of reviews from our fans. Why not? We’re indie. We make the mother f@$#ing rules now! If we want reader quotes at the front of our book, we’ll damn well have them! (With the readers’ express, written permission, of course).

Readers can be amazing, open-minded, and inspiring, and all they ask in return is a really good story. Embracing indie means shifting your paradigm. Your peers, other industry professionals, even professional reviewers, must get in line behind your readers. Love them, celebrate them, include them, your readers are your publishers now; you stand or fall on their support.

And that rocks like Stonehenge.

Factors to consider:

  • How thick-skinned are you? You’re going to hear and read things about self-published authors that will test the limits of your self-esteem and self-control, you can’t take it personally. However, you can burn those people in effigy. Not that I have ever done such a thing… she said as the kerosene fell from her purse.
  • Will you swear to be a good ambassador? Okay, this one’s entirely selfish but the world does not need another low quality, unprofessional, poopy indie author. They make us all look bad. Don’t be that person. Please. Pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease!

AUTHOR BEWARE

You can tell I’m serious by my use of all caps! Here’s the part where I try to keep you from losing your money to the unethical dream-sucking vampires trolling the indie-authorverse. If I haven’t scared you off and you’re serious about self-publishing, I want you to do so with your eyes wide open.

There are absolutely no guarantees in the professional writing life. None. Repeat that one thousand times. Any business or individual that promises you a specific level of success with your book is full of it.

Scams abound in the writing world but self-publishing is like a field full of helpless lambs and baby seals for the clubbing for these cons. Most notable are the fully legitimate businesses (some of which are owned by real publishers) who will help you to “self-publish” your masterpiece and all they ask in return is the limb of your choice, your first born child, and for you to pledge your eternal soul to an evil underworld demon. Run. Run away screaming. This is beautiful trickery. This is the exploitation of your hopes and dreams by people with eyeballs shaped like dollar signs. This is not self-publishing, this is a cleverly disguised vanity press. Their promises will be tempting but, as Mr. Miyagi says, “Not everything is as it seems.”

I’ve heard horror stories of people paying up to $15,000 to have their book “self-published”. Trust me, you’d be better off just burning the money—at least you could enjoy the brief flash of warmth from the fire.

Educate yourself. This will take more time and energy but it will save you a load of heartache and money. SFWA’s Writer Beware is a fantastic place to start but you need only Google “self-publishing scams” to find pages of information. You should also start networking and making friends with experienced, published authors (this is something you should do anyway), who can help answer your questions.

Your best hope at succeeding in any form of publishing is to write a damn good book. You might as well repeat that one thousand times too.

And Now I Sum It All Up Neatly With A Bow

Before making a decision about self-publishing, consider your skill level and available time; write out your short, mid, and long-term writing goals; determine whether you have the entrepreneurial spirit you’ll need to sell your work; and decide if the awesomeness of self-publishing is worth the stigma you will have to face. Don’t rush. Do your homework. And, of course, have fun and enjoy the ride.

I am always happy to answer questions, with the aforementioned caveat that I am not an expert, just an author who is figuring it out as she goes. And if you’d like to share your own experience or thoughts, leave a comment so everyone can learn a thing or two.

For those who don’t know me, (Mom, you can stop reading now), you can explore the warped worlds Josh and I have created at warpworld.ca (the second book is aaaaallllllmmmooost out) and you can visit my Goodreads author profile here. <— See? Always promoting.

And because I believe in helping out those folks who have helped me…

If you’re looking for a cover designer, typesetter/ebook formatter who will work their butt off and do excellent work, and not charge you up the wazoo, then you need to contact this guy RIGHT NOW: Miguel Kilantang at Migz Works

For ruthless and stellar copy and line editing, with humorous notes in the margins, drop me a line and I’ll pass on the contact info for Steve Thornton. (Steve, you need a website!)

To find quality indie books and support indie authors, visit indiebrag.com

And of course let’s also support our local indie bookstores (that would be Otter Books in my current home town of Nelson, BC, Canada) because they’re the folks that give up-and-coming scribblers, (like me), shelf space! IndieBound.org

Until next time, I hope this finds you healthy, happy & lovin’ life, grasshopper!

This entry was posted in Indie publishing, On Scribbling, Warpworld and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Should I or Shouldn’t I? Advice from the self-publishing trenches

  1. Josh says:

    Going indie was a little different for me. I’ve been in and out of my own businesses for most of my adult life before I finally found the one that suited me. The funniest thing was that when it started looking like we weren’t going to get the time of day from big pub, I started looking into the indie scene. The more I saw, the more I hoped that we wouldn’t get a deal. When I think about the prospect of Kris and I splitting 5k as the total payout for three books, then watching the series get canceled before we could finish it, I get metaphorical shivers.

    So really, thank you final two editors for rejecting us. You made my year. Even better, when I put our books on the shelf at the office, I look at covers that Kris and I personally laid out (before Miguel comes in and does his magic to assemble them.) Outside of a few elements- bar code, copyright statement, etc., everything that’s in our book is made by us, chosen by us, controlled by us. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

    As for the stake, I’d be a bit more forgiving if that had been the first or only time. I still remember dodging silver bullets over my proposed end to Wasteland Renegades.

    (The one that after we finished she liked more than I did, hilariously enough.)

  2. Josh says:

    One other comment I’d like to add. Most of the articles I’ve seen from people who aren’t satisfied with the self-pub experience tend to follow this pattern: “I made my book. I put it online. I told everyone on my Facebook and Twitter about it. Then nobody bought it. Therefore self-pub=bad and the successful self-pub writers are pure flukes.”

    Being a success in any business requires persistence and diligence. Before we even uploaded Warpworld, Kris and I were talking and our optimistic projection for break-even is the third book. If it happens before then, great. If not, we’re going to keep plugging away.

    I’ve never expected any business I’ve been part of to take off from day one. Many of the denunciations I’ve seen have been driven largely by what are (to me) highly unrealistic expectations.

  3. Geri says:

    Thanks for the mention Kristene!
    Some great incites into this somewhat mystical world of self-publishing.
    The more info all of us share, the easier it is for an author to make intelligent choices.
    Writers are dreamers so there is no reason to think they won’t be dreaming about great success. When we find the key to that success, we will share it with everyone- until then, we just keep working

    Geri

  4. To be honest, I’m going to expect to be making money after I put out my tenth book. Expect the worst, hope for the best, etc. When people decry self-pub as a possibility, I always point out that I very rarely see authors on Amazon (yes, sorry, this is where I get most of my ebooks) who have good covers, well-written stories, and a backlist of 10 books who are not at least enjoying some success. Even monetarily. *gasp*

  5. Skip Michael says:

    I’m a Detective that writes reports daily. These reports relate to facts with no flavor, humor, conjecture, or speculation, in short, just the facts Mam. You can imagine that in my forty years of police work I have numerous incidents and stories to write about. I know, I live in the forest and I should write about trees, but I don’t like trees. I write science fiction. Why, because I like it. I am an Indie and have published one book and working on the second book in the series. As a writer with limited, flawed and drastically influenced writing skills that interfere with readers desire to read my book (wife and editor say I write to much like a cop. No flavor, etc.) I found you article inspiring. I do get discouraged by critics, especially those in my circle of friends. Your article put me back on the path again of having a plan and sticking with it. Will I make millions? doubtful. The best I can hope for is that 40 or 50 years from now, when I’m long gone, my writings will be viewed as a “A writer that was overlooked for his grasp of the future.” Yeah right. More like some screen writer taking my books and turning them into a movie, making millions. But I will have my credits “Based on the Novels written by Skip Michael”.
    Thanks again for your article, it encouraged me to continue on, if for no other reason but to make that future screen writer rich.

    • clubfredbaja says:

      You’re welcome, Skip. Don’t ignore criticism, though. The best writers are those who are constantly learning and improving their craft! Good luck.

    • Josh says:

      Kris and I do tend to differ on the value of criticism. My take is to learn to filter out the extraneous and focus on that which does actually help you improve. Learning what that is happens to be an ongoing process. ‘Writing like a cop’ may not appeal to some people, but you never know if there’s a niche out there that it does appeal to if you don’t just get in the thick of it and see.

      So bon chance! Go for it! Write and write some more! You never know, we might be hearing about you in connection to a movie or a TV series at some point in the future. I’m crossing my fingers and toes in hope for massive success for you in the future.

  6. This is a great 2009 post. But this whole issue has long since been decided and nobody has to be talked into publishing their work any more.

    • clubfredbaja says:

      Actually, I would talk most people out of self-publishing if their goal is to become a career author. Not that I think publishing should be some sort of exclusive club, but because I believe too many people see it as an easy shortcut to success.

      Also, by the number of writers who have approached me with questions, I’d say not everyone is certain self-publishing is the right path. I don’t think it’s an issue that needs to be decided; it’s an individual choice.

      • linrobinson says:

        You would? Incredible
        Of course it’s a choice. Except that it’s not really a fork in the road anymore like it was 8 years ago. You approach both. I don’t know who you are talking to (or why they are coming to YOU for advice) but I address writing conferences on this subject. 4 years ago people were curious about publishing, but scared by all the bad-mouthing they read in Writers Digest (funded largely by vanity presses) and by online wannabes.
        The last conference I did (this month) NOBODY had any doubts. They just wanted to know how to do it and how to promote it.
        Yeah, that issue has been resolved. Publishing your work is the first recourse, not a “last resort”. The idea that it’s a “shortcut” is kind of crazy, frankly.
        What writers need to do is get readers. And as quickly as possible. The only “platform” for fiction is proven readership. A solid SP book will get trad published a lot faster than average, and the percentage of success is far higher than the miniscule number of titles sold by agents, and available after a few years to the lucky lottery winners.
        You are just stuck way behind the curve. Kind of surprising for a self-published writer. Maybe that’s why you aren’t doing so well. (And small wonder selling unknown Kindle books for $8)
        I have NO idea why people would come to you for advice, of why you think you know what “career authors” should do, but I think you might be better off doing some listening and learning at your stage of development, not lecturing others on something you obviously don’t know much about.
        I don’t mean that as unfriendly as it probably sounds, but come on, be realistic. Get with the current model.

        • clubfredbaja says:

          Yes, I would, and that’s where our opinions differ. And I’m very clear–right from the opening paragraph–that I am expressing an opinion and not lecturing, that I’m sharing what I have learned from my experiences and not putting forth suggestions as any kind of expert.

          I wish you luck in your own journey.

          • linrobinson says:

            Sorry, but when you “try to talk them out of it” you are more than “putting forth suggestions” and are implying an expertise.
            I would suggest that you stop doing that. You are not qualified to tell others about this stuff and it could be very damaging to them to take your word for that.
            Think if over. Once you’ve done something that worked, then maybe you can tell others. But by then you’ll probably learn than it’s not a good idea to tell people not to realize themselves.

          • clubfredbaja says:

            Thank you, for reading and commenting, Mr. Robinson. I have replied to all your posts politely. Our discussion ends here. Best of luck.

  7. Pingback: Self-Publishing: Carnival of the Indies Issue #37 — The Book Designer

  8. Pingback: Indie Authors: Self Publishing Advice | Musings and Marvels

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