In 2013 I attended the national Romance Writers of American (RWA) conference in Atlanta. At that time, I was gearing up to start releasing my writing craft books, so I spent most of my time in the self publishing and e-book workshops. They were all very informative and rather enlightening.
The workshops covered everything from basic steps to self publishing, to tips on making the most of your brand, to marketing, and yes, the big question--how much a self published book costs to produce.
I have pages and pages of notes, but here are the highlights (please note that some of the specific numbers might be out of date now in 2016, I've updated where I could).
Branding Yourself as an Author
Every successful indie author stressed branding, and I've heard that tune before. But this time there was a lot more said than the traditional "you need to create an author brand" advice that had never been very helpful. The best advice on branding came from Angie Fox:
Your brand is how you want readers to describe your books to their friends.This was so simple and clear it made things really click for me. If you write funny mysteries, or fast-paced thrillers, or touching contemporary tales, certain words and feelings will stick with your readers. That's what they'll say when they tell friends about your books. "Oh, she writes hysterical paranormal mysteries." They'll know exactly what they're going to get when they pick up one of your books. Funny paranormal mysteries. Or whatever you write.
Some extra branding and marketing tips:
- Cover designs for a series should look like they all belong to that series. Covers are a great way to brand the look of a series or an author. Make you name big! That's your brand, too.
- Craft your one-sentence tagline that describes you as a writer. My favorite was from a humor erotica writer who said hers was "kink with a wink." Best example of how effective this can be. I don't know her books, but I can already tell what I'd be getting.
- Swag is more for readers who already love you than gaining new readers. But gifts that say "thanks" are very appreciated by fans.
- Be creative with marketing and do what you enjoy. Whatever allows you to connect with readers is good. It's more than handing out bookmarks no one ever keeps.
Running Your Self-Published Business Like a Business
Another thing indie authors stressed was being professional and treating your self-publishing endeavor like a business. There were several great workshops devoted to just that, including one run by my own agent, Kristin Nelson, with publishing attorney, John Tandler. Here are some overall highlights:
Note: I'm no lawyer, just relaying information here, so consult a lawyer about all this before you do anything.
- Have a credit card and checking account for your author brand (publishing costs, events, domain fees, etc. All the costs of being an indie author). This will make it much easier to track your expenses when tax time comes around. And keep track of what you're actually spending.
- For hybrid authors, be aware that self publishing could violate any non-compete clauses in your contract. Be sure to check with your agent or lawyer to make sure you're not opening yourself up to lawsuits. Traditional authors looking to self publish--talk with your agent so you don't violate any contract clauses.
- Create a business plan that covers, costs, assets, needs, etc. Understand your legal rights regarding copyrights (should be filed within three months of publication) and intellectual property. Do your research and know what costs and requirements are involved before your start.
- When creating an LLC (Limited Liability Company) or Corporation, think about the name of the company, not just the book or a pen name. Also, an LLC can cost over $1000, so add this to your list of costs.
- Pay attention to the clauses in your contracts for different distributors. There are quite a few things that can cause you trouble if you're unaware of them, such as price matching requirements, or vendors who can remove your work at any time without telling you. To keep track, create a spreadsheet with all the clauses for all the vendors so you know what you're responsible for.
The Hard Costs of Self Publishing
This was the workshop that got down to brass tacks. How much does it really cost to self publish a novel? What types of editing do you need and how do you find those editors? Again, these savvy ladies stressed that success goes hand in hand with professionalism. If you want to be an indie publisher, treat your books like a traditional publisher would. Get good editors and treat your novel with the care it deserves.
The most common editorial services are (and yes, they recommended you do all of them):
Developmental Editors: These are the folks who look at the big picture and help you make the story the best it can be. They're not looking for typos or awkward sentences, but how the story flows and reads. Average cost: $
Line Editors: These are the folks who look at the text and help you polish it until it shines. They're not looking at the big picture, just how the text reads. This is where the bulk of the detailed, time-consuming work is. Average cost: $1500-2000.
Copy Editors: These are the folks who check grammar and punctuation, and do fact checking. Sometimes they can also do your proofreading. Average cost: $500-1000.
Proofreaders: These folks look for mistakes and typos. No cost was mentioned here, but a quick search pulled up an average of $5-15 per 1000 words. It's also common for them to charge by the hour, or the page.
The Editorial Freelance Association has this chart for average editing rates.
So to properly edit and proof a novel, you're looking at $2000-5000 on average. You can find better deals out there I'm sure, these are just averages, but to do it right is going to cost more than a dinner out, so be prepared. This also doesn't include book cover design and book layout design if you plan to add a POD option (print on demand) to your e-book. (As a professional designer, I urge you not to scrimp on design. There are plenty of good artists out there and you want your cover to look just as professional as a traditionally published novel. We all know what badly designed covers look like--cheap, unprofessional self pub'd messes, right? Even if the book itself is good. Don't give off that vanity press vibe)
Research editors before you sign with them. Most will do sample edits (very low costs, a few dollars a page) so you can see how they work. They also might provide sample edit letters to show the types of things they'll be suggesting. Get testimonials from past clients, agree on what's going to be done and in what timeframe (ALWAYS put a cap on anything hourly). Common practice is half up front, half on completion.
Developmental edits don't need an editor who knows your genre. Good story mechanics are the same in any book. For line edits, it's good to have someone who knows your genre to pick up on common tropes and words of your genre.
Being a Successful Indie Author
Here is a random assortment of tips I picked up:
- The sweet spot for publishing frequency is two to four months. (Yes, that's releasing a book every two to four months. Yeah, made me cringe, too.)
- You can make a, and I quote, "flipping fortune" from audio books. Don't forget this aspect of publishing, though you get out of it what you put into it. It's all about the narrator, and good narrators cost money. But they're worth it.
- With distribution, you can do it yourself or go through a distributor. Going direct allows for more flexibility, and faster changes when needed. A distributor does it for you, average cost $150. (Not sure if this is per book or per year or both, but the cost is reasonable)
- Metadata metadata metadata. It's ALL about the keywords folks. Search engines and the infamous Amazon algorithms work off the keywords, and not having the right ones can mean your book never gets seen. This also holds true for cover blurbs, book descriptions, and subheads, so make sure your copy includes the words to connect your book with potential readers.
- Indie books take time to build, so don't expect to put one out there and sell thousands of copies the first week. It can be months or even up to a year before you see a book take off. But they're there forever, so they keep building as long as readers keep finding them.
- Every release has a chance to boost sales of your older titles. New readers see the new book, which encourages them to go buy the older books.
- If a book isn't selling, change something. A new cover, tweak the cover blurb, change the price, adjust the metadata. Just give the changes time to work first. (30-60 days was average)
- Scrivener is pretty good at outputting e-books, but you really want to get a book on it to show you how (Gwen Henandez's Scrivener for Dummies is probably a good one. She seemed to know her stuff in the workshop). It's not an intuitive program and you'll rip your hair out trying to figure things out sometimes. (at least that's been my experience. The Scrivener to e-book workshop was full of "Oh! Now I get it" moments.)
- E-books need different files for different vendors if you're including links. So on your Kindle file, if you link to your other books in your author bio, they all need to be Amazon links. Same with Nook or Kobo.
Are You Really Willing to Put in the Work to be an Indie Author?
I spent the first day of the con in one room, as that's where the self pub'd workshops were. Because of that, I noticed something intriguing and it continued throughout the conference. The first two workshops I attended were about self publishing in general. Tips, how to do it, more of the "here's how you can make a ton of money doing it yourself" types, though they offered more than just that. Both sessions were packed. People were sitting on the floor in the aisles.
Later that day, I attended a workshop on editing your self-published novel, which was about finding and hiring editors, not the technical aspects of editing (which was clear in the description). Maybe 20% of the room was full. I noticed it again at a workshop about the legal and business aspects of self publishing.
Tons of people wanted to know what self publishing was all about, but a very small minority showed up to hear the things that would actually let them be successful at it. I found this fascinating. Maybe it was just curiosity filling the other sessions, or maybe there are a lot of people who think they can slap up an e-book on Amazon and hit the bestseller lists. Either way, you really want to treat indie publishing like a small business. Because it really is.
Good conference, good workshops, good information.