Thursday, July 14, 2016

5 Musts for Self-Publishing Great Books

By Laurisa White Reyes, @lwreyes

Part of the Indie Authors Series

When I was fourteen years old, I described my life’s dream on a page in my journal. I wanted, more than anything, to be an author. Not just any author. I wanted to be a New York Times Best-selling author. I fantasized about autographing books and winning the Newbery Award. In bookstores, I scanned the shelves, hunting for the very spot where my books would one day be. Once I actually started writing novels about a dozen years ago, I fully believed this dream was within reach, that any writer who worked hard enough could achieve it.

Na├»ve as I was, this dream kept me motivated through fourteen complete manuscripts and hundreds of rejection letters. Along the way, I did get three books published with small presses. I thought my dream was coming true. But I soon discovered that publication is no guarantee of success, and that too often, getting published with a small press (as well-meaning and author-friendly as many of them are) can be worse for an author’s career than having never published at all.

That’s where I found myself in 2015, with three published titles, a career in the publishing industry, and an impressive list of awards and recognitions under my belt. Yet I felt no closer to my dream than I had been as a teenager. By that time, I had spent two decades working on one particular book that meant a great deal to me.

In 1993, I worked as an office assistant at an AIDS clinic in Pasadena, California. I witnessed a lot of tragedy there, people suffering from a disease for which, at the time, there was no effective treatment. My experiences stuck with me and eventually resulted in a children’s novel about a girl whose father is dying of AIDS. Though I received numerous positive responses from literary agents, the manuscript accumulated close to thirty rejections. One agent told me that though The Storytellers was good, “kids today aren’t interested in reading about AIDS in the 90s.” In other words, it simply wasn’t marketable.

I was discouraged. I was disillusioned. Maybe the publishing industry was somehow rigged against people like me. I had a decision to make: Give up on the book or self-publish.

Back up one year to 2014.

My lifelong friend and fellow writer-in-arms, Noelle Campbell, lost her husband to a sudden illness. She had not yet had the opportunity to publish a book due to personal circumstances. To honor her husband, however, we decided to publish a collection of her sci-fi short stories. I was an experienced editor, and I had connections with professional artists and designers. So, together we published Martian Goods—and Skyrocket Press was born.

Over the past two years, Skyrocket Press has teamed up with half a dozen authors to self-publish their books. The goal is always to produce books with the same high quality as traditionally published books.

When I decided to self-publish The Storytellers in 2015, I had one goal in mind. That goal was not to win any awards or to create a best-seller. My goal was to make the best book I possibly could, one worthy of the story I had dedicated so much of my life to write.

Beyond the writing and revising of the story itself, the process of publishing that book (and all the books I’ve helped to create) included the following 5 steps:

1. Developmental Editing 

Although I had worked for two publishers as a book editor, I knew from experience that editing your own work is never a good idea. As a writer, you get too familiar with the story and your eyes can play tricks on you. A good rule of thumb for writers, even those who are experienced editors, is to hire a professional to do it for you. I hired an editor from Andrea Hurst & Associates, though there are many reputable editors out there.

2. Line Editing and Proofreading

Again, despite my experience as an editor, I felt it was best to hire someone who could edit my manuscript with an unbiased perspective. The Storytellers went through two separate editing processes: Line Editing (where the editor evaluates every paragraph and sentence of the text to make sure the language flows right and that the grammar and sentence structure make sense) and Proofreading (where the editor spots all those nagging little typos). In an effort to cut costs,too many authors either skip this step or hire people who are unqualified to edit their work, such as friends or family members. This is a mistake and can result in a sub-standard final draft.

3. Cover Design

One author who hired Skyrocket Press to publish his middle grade novel came with a cover already in hand. An artist “friend” of his had created it for him. I took one look at it and told him I could not publish the book with that cover. Why? Because most friends, relatives or acquaintances who call themselves artists are amateurs. The publication of your book is not the place to do a friend a favor—or to allow your friend to do you a favor. When it comes to books, first impressions are everything, so your cover must be spectacular. For The Storytellers, I knew I wanted a silhouette of a girl and a tree on the cover. I first studied a dozen comparable titles with silhouette covers, and then I searched for an artist who could pull it off. I discovered a very talented silhouette artist, Jessica L. Barnes, on Etsy. I also hired designer Emma Michaels to take Jessica’s art and turn it into a workable book cover.

4. Interior Design

If the cover of a book represents first impressions, then the interior represents second impressions and can be a powerful influence in whether someone reads your book or not. Title page, copyright page, table of contents, page numbers, chapter headings, font size and style, back matter, and page layout are all vital in creating a favorable impression for your reader. I spent more than six months learning how to do all this for Skyrocket Press. So by the time I tackled The Storytellers, I was ready for it. I created the cover page using the silhouette art from Jessica Barnes and designed the chapter headings on PicMonkey. The result was an interior that was engaging and pleasing to the eye.

5. Formatting

This involves the physical structure of a book, including page dimensions, margins, line spacing, and indentations. For e-books, this also includes interior and exterior hyperlinks. It’s vital that all these elements come together in a visually appealing way. For The Storytellers, I chose a 6x9 page size, Garamond 13 pt. font, with a 1.15 line spacing. I did not choose these elements randomly but spent a good deal of time examining other books in the same genre to determine which elements were most effective.

The final result of all this work was published in October 2015. By that point, my dream of becoming a best-selling author had transformed into a dream of creating books that I could be proud of, and I was very pleased with how The Storytellers turned out.

In February 2016, The Storytellers received The Spark Award by The Society of Children’s Books Writers & Illustrators, the highest recognition a non-traditionally published children’s book can receive. Ironically, it was only after I had finally let go of the dream of fame and fortune that I could focus on what really mattered—the story.

If I could offer one piece of advice to authors seeking to self-publish, it is this:

Don’t Sell Your Story Short.

After all the time and effort you’ve put into writing a book that matters to you, why would you want to skimp on making your book the best it can be? Don’t take short cuts when it comes to editing, formatting and design. Invest in your book. Trust me, your story is worth it.

Laurisa White Reyes’ middle grade novel, The Storytellers, was awarded the 2015 SCBWI Spark Award for best self-published children’s book of the year. She is the author of several other books as well, including The Celestine Chronicles series, Contact, The Crystal Keeper, and Teaching Kids to Write Well: Six Secrets Every Grown-up Should Know. She is the former Editor-in-Chief of Middle Shelf Magazine, the Senior Editor of Skyrocket Press, and a professor of English at College of the Canyons in Southern California. You can find her at and To receive Laurisa’s newsletter and a free book, subscribe here:

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About The Storytellers

12-year-old Elena Barrios' father has AIDS, a new disease in 1991 with a 100% fatality rate. Rather than face certain ridicule and ostracism, Elena tells her friends anything but the truth, fabricating stories about her father being a writer and researcher. But the reality is that Elena resents her father’s illness and can’t face the fact that he is dying. When she is befriended by a woman named Ang who tells stories about her own father, Elena is transported into these stories, allowing her to experience them first hand. With Ang's help, Elena gains the courage to stand up to the bully at her school, mend her relationship with her father, and finally say goodbye.

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  1. Very good tips to bear in mind. Thank you so much for sharing.

  2. I know that line editing and proofreading are so very important, and absolutely NOT the place to skimp. Or the cover for that matter. I hadn't given much thought to the interior formatting of the book though, so I learned much from that, thank you.