Friday, July 26, 2013

What You Really Want to Know About Self Publishing

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Last week I attended the national Romance Writers of American (RWA) conference in Atlanta. Since I'm gearing up to start releasing my writing craft books this fall, 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.

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: $250-500.

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.

So to properly edit and proof a novel, you're looking at $2000-3500 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.

25 comments:

  1. Intriguing take on peoples' interest in self pubbing. I am in a self-pub organization in Denver, and I can attest to the fact that many of our authors don't really want to spend money on editing or book design or take the time to learn the things that would make their books truly successful.

    People really need to research the two different models and decide which suits them better. I'm still trying to decide that for myself, and at the moment I'm leaning toward traditional. The fact that I will make much less per book seems appropriate to the amount of money I will not have to lay out and the amount of things--distribution, etc., I will not have to bother getting involved with.

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  2. Great list of tips, Janice. Thanks for putting it together in such a clear way -- much of the advice on self-publishing is pretty much trash, and not all of us can go to conferences. So thanks! :)

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  3. * much of the general advice out there is trash, not what you said here. :P

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  4. I'm very curious about the process. I know that to reach my goal of 3-4 books coming out each year, I'll likely need to consider self-publishing.

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  5. Leslie, interesting that you're seeing that too. I guess there are always a percentage of people who want to skip the hard work and get to the success, no matter what the field.

    I agree about the research. The one good thing about all the publishing changes right now, is that writers have tons of options. They can do what feels right to them and fits their career goals. I like the idea of the hybrid author myself. I enjoy traditional publishing, but I have books I know won't sell to a traditional house. Those are books I believe in, and I can see doing those myself. Both platforms can work to support each other.

    Every writer needs to decide what they want from their career and then go for it :) There is no wrong answer if that's what works for them.

    Veronica, thanks! I've found a lot of it is vague. Some good advice out there, but some that doesn't do more than say "you can do it yourself and look at these few folks who hit it big!" I think there's a sense that self publishing is the ticket to success, when the reality is the chances are probably about the same. Some books hit big, other languish. We only hear about the mega successes because they're news.

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  6. Paul, that's one reason I'm considering it as well. There are pros and cons, but it does give us more flexibility in our careers. I think being able to control release dates on our own is safe than having two or three houses to worry about.

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  7. I have a YA steampunk series in mind. Some friends of mine are active in the steampunk community and have offered to help with design.

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  8. Thanks for the roundup, Janice! I went to a lot of the self-pub panels at Westercon and also noticed that the "realities of self-publishing" details were not well-received. In the particularly honest panel, all those bright eager faces that came in the door looked a little shell-shocked by the end.

    Those of us who already had a glimpse of how much hard work goes into it were not as put off, and we continued to attend them throughout the day. I'm still considering self-publishing, but I'm glad I had a chance to attend. I got some great resources.

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  9. Absolutely superb post, Janice. This is pure gold, and you're very generous to share.

    As you know, I own an expanding indie press (Panverse) through which I've published two of my own books as well as several other authors. I not only agree with everything here but also thank you for giving me some new insights, especially the comment on audiobooks (which simple time pressures have not allowed us to get going on yet).

    A few comments: I think the copyediting cost given is a little light, and suggest 1c/word is on the low end of the scale: a pro copyeditor for a fair-sized novel could certainly hit $2k.

    Second, anyone thinking of self-publishing in print as well as digitally should look very hard at the non-exclusivity clauses that Create Space and most other POD outfits have in their contracts: these essentially mean that if you sign with them you're giving them a right to keep publishing a book you've had them print forever as long as they pay you a royalty, even if you end your contract with them! Lightning Source is the only POD that doesn't, and there are many other things to recommend them.

    Third, the point about Indie books taking time to build is dead on: whereas a trad pubbed book has between three to six months in which to make it before it vanishes, six months to a year is a fairly common ramp-up to build good sales on an indie/self title.

    Fourth, distribution (if you're going print): really thorny and confusing topic, and the toughest nut of all to crack. Read, read, read. There are new models, such as Ingram's new Spark program the Baker & Taylor equivalent which offer small POD players a really good crack at real brisk-and-mortar presence, but you'll need to look hard at your pricing.

    Finally, Veronica Sicoe's comment is spot on: most of what's said about self-publishing in blogs et al is trash and/or outdated. This is an industry that's changing by the month, and it's vital to stay current if you want to succeed.

    Thanks again!

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  10. The audio book tip is supported by another self-published author out there, although he deals with non-fiction and is more wary about traditional publishing. http://www.jamesaltucher.com/2013/07/how-to-self-publish-a-bestseller-publishing-3-0/

    He has said that recording an audio book helps with rewriting his book to be better.

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  11. ...wow. I have to admit, I'm coward enough to be glad I'm not done writing and don't have to worry about this just yet!

    From what I've picked up talking to other writers and stalking blogs, self-publishing is definitely on the rise. In my naiveté, I assumed that meant it was my better option. Thank you for outlining the costs and work involved; if I ever get to this point, I know now that this decision will take quite a lot of sober thought.

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  12. Angelica, I think as more and more writers try it and it becomes more mainstream, people will be able to find more reliable information out there. (though it's the internet, so maybe not, lol) It's a business, and it makes sense to treat it like one.

    Dario, thanks! And thanks for the additional info. All very good tips. These days, I think this info can days on a weekly basis, hehe.

    Chihuahua Zero, thanks for the link! From what folks at the con were saying, audio books are growing exponentially as well now that you can download them. The delivery system has opened them up to more people.

    Rachel, there's no general better option, it's what you want as an author. There are multiple reasons to choose any of the options. It all depends on what you want from publishing. Some folks want the control, others want someone else to deal with the biz side. Some want to explore both sides. And you can always change your mind, too.

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  13. Great tips, Janice. There's a lot of work to self-publishing if you want to do it professionally. You might want to check out Susan Quinn's blog. She's successful self-published author who shares tips on her blog.

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  14. Thanks! I used to follow her blog, but you just made me realize it fell off my list when I moved to Bloglovin. Time to fix that!

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  15. Thanks for the great post, Janice.

    I'm concerned about the suggestion of releasing new books ever 2-4 months. I'm finding that authors who do that are no longer caring about craft or getting the books properly edited, in their rush to get the next book out. I've stopped reading a number of books by bestsellers because of that issue. The best thing is to write a quality book and put them out as frequently as you can with comprising on this. If it's only 1 or 2 books a year, then fine. Or better yet, write several books first, then start to self publish them ever four to five months.

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  16. I agree. You're better off putting out great books at longer intervals than rush them. But it was an interesting comment, so I shared :) With editorial comments, lol.

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  17. Thanks for such a comprehensive blog. WIll share with my writing students.

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  18. Thanks for sharing these great tips, Janice. I've heard lots of excellent things about the workshops and wish I could have attended. I'll be buying the tapes for sure.

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  19. I've just blogged about the dearth of fully-edited self-pubbed books. I guess not many writers think they can affort upwards of over $2000 for editors. I think it's a bit like travel insurance - if you can't afford travel insurance, you can't afford to travel.

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  21. Carol, thanks!

    Shelly, I love that they offer the tapes. And give you all the handouts. You get more out of the con that way :)

    Denise, I think it comes back to the "are you a business?" view. "Self publishing" is still vanity publishing in a lot of way, but "indie publishing" is treating it like a small business. Nice analogy :)

    Jo, a good crit group and beta readers is certainly a smart move, and the editors at the workshop stressed having them. If someone is lucky enough to have crit partners who can do the editing jobs, that's great and they might not need to hire a freelancer.

    I think like any business, there are editors who are honest and will do a great job for a reasonable fee, and others who will try to cheat their customers. Good editors are turning away clients, so I doubt they're dragging things out just for the money. There's always another client waiting. And these figures were average. You can find editors working for less. The smart move is to do your research if you choose to go this route.

    I think you get out of it what you put into it. The indie authors I've met/know who have done well have all treated it professionally and like a small business. The ones who haven't, aren't seeing a lot of sales. I'm sure there are ways to do it professionally for less that $3K if someone is willing to put in the work and find the right people.

    A lot does go into a traditionally published book, though even that varies by house and even genre. Some do a lot of editing and promotion, others do very little. But the traditional houses aren't taking on raw manuscripts (at least, not from debuts. Established authors might be different as they work with their editors on new projects). A MS has to be at a professional level first, then editors help make it better. These days, more and more agents are taking on editing roles and helping to get a MS there.

    There might be editors out there who will work for a share, but if the book doesn't sell you still put in the work. I can't see that being a good business investment for anyone. With royalties as low as they are, I don't know how many authors would be willing to share what's left. And be able and willing to do all the accounting that would go into sending an editor royalties. Also, if the author goes traditional publishing, that could be problematic legally. They might do it, though, and another workshop said you see that with narrators for audio books sometimes.

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  22. Some fine comments above.

    As a publisher who also does the house copyediting I can speak to Jo Antareau's point about publishers (well, good ones, LOL) doing more than promoting and marketing the book, and illustrate the work involved.

    We (Panverse Publishing) have two novels (90k and 130k) and a nonfiction title releasing in September. Both the novels were written by fine writers, one of whom has several stories in print. Neither needed any developmental editing, but I still did two full passes to each to get them to a high polish--you can do it in one, and leave the rest to the proofreader but I find two passes better, so:

    First pass consists of catching logical, factual, and consistency errors; awkward prose; consistency in such things as capitalization and numeration; attention to emphasis (italics); odd shifts in narrative voice and tone; inconsistencies in character voice both spoken and internal; awkward prose and syntax; and so on. This first pass *averages* around 1500-2000 words/hr, or around 40-50 hrs for an 80k novel, and will typically turn up from a couple of hundred hundred to close to a thousand changes/comments. A rough ms can slow you down to 1,000-1,200 wph.

    The second pass is rather faster, more like 3k wph, and focuses on mopping up anything missed on the first pass, as well as typos, punctuation, paragraphing, etc. So in total I spend around 90-100 hrs on copyediting each of our books, and our authors consistently appreciate it. Even the most polished ms from a longtime pro author (I have one in the 2014 queue) will turn up a few dozen items.

    The problem is that as authors we not only miss most of this, but in many cases don't have the skill set to catch a lot of the factual stuff; beyond owning a Chicago manual and knowing their way around it, a good copyeditor usually has an old brain stuffed with a vast array of factual knowledge and a bloodhound instinct for inaccuracies; they'll know where the Dardanelles strait is and also that there's an "s" on the end, or look it up to be sure it's spelled correctly; they'll know that most writers don't have a clue about firearms; they'll check the seasonal water temperature for the scene where the hero has to swim the British Channel in early Spring; and so on.

    Suddenly that 1c-2c word rate doesn't sound so bad, does it? ;-)

    Dario

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  23. I'm looking forward to when other conferences offer more on self publishing and varying methods of publishing. I think hybrid is a great choice for authors esp. when books just don't fit with traditional publishers. :)

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  24. Dario, thanks for the behind the scenes view on copy editing ;) Certainly outs it in perspective.

    Laura, same here. Romance writers tend to be on the front lines of change, so I imagine more conferences will start doing self pub workshops.

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  25. This is a fantastic series of tips. I'm still fairly early in the process of writing my first book, so I'll be saving this to revisit often.

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