Monday, 11 April 2016

My Experience of Publishing (or what NOT to do)

So I was asked recently if I had any general publishing tips/thoughts. I have a few, here goes.

I'm not traditionally published, I'm self-published (with a small stint with a small press that didn't work out). I'm also not Michael J Sullivan or Hugh Howey. I'm not a massive success. That said, I am doing pretty well right now which, I think, qualifies me to advise on what NOT to do (and, trust me, I've done most of these things).

As a writer (and we'll assume a complete manuscript to keep life simple) then your first choice is whether to go the traditional or self-pub route. This, largely, is a question of how much patience you have. Traditional publishing is a long, long, slow game (add in a few more long and slows if you like.) IF you can find an agent willing to take you on, and this alone can take a long time, and IF they can find a publisher interested in your work, then the road from submission to bookshop can easily be more than a year. Self-publishing can have you out there in much less time but the road out of obscurity can take longer than traditional publishing.

I self-published. I'll hold my hands up and say I screwed up. Had I more patience then I would have reworked my book another five or six times before I sent it out to the agents that rejected it. By the time it was of a standard at which they might have accepted it, I had already self-published. So lesson one, be more patient than I was.

So, before we go on, a caveat: This is not a post about writing. This is not a post about world-building, or how to create a great character. This is a post about publishing and the first thing to bear in mind is that publishing is a business.

Any Idiot can Publish a Book
Kindle Direct Publishing, B&N's Nook, Kobo and the like have made it so that anyone can publish anything, whether it's good or not. This is often confused with vanity publishing but I think you can argue a difference. Vanity press was about paying to have your own books produced in print. The days of vanity press are more or less past us and, if the Hugh Howey's of the publishing world teach us anything, it's that self-published authors can be, and in many cases are, a success.

It's Going to Cost You
One of the biggest lies out there is that you can self-publish for free. Perhaps “lie” is too strong a word. You can publish on KDP or Smashwords (which then distributes to Kobo, iTunes, Barnes and Noble before the demise of Nook, and a host of other e-platforms) for free. They won't charge you a fee and you'll get a generous royalty cut.
99.9% of us however, do not have the skills to do this. Self publishing isn't free for most of us. The costs include cover artists, formatters, editors and that's before you even get into the marketing side of things. So to reiterate my earlier point, publishing is a business. It has up-front costs and, if you choose to self-publish, it is a gamble.
Amazon has over four and a half million eBooks on sale. That doesn't include those books which are paperback only. No matter how good your book is, there is a reasonable chance it will never be discovered by the majority of your target audience.

Covers... Get One.
Obviously there are things you can do to improve your chances. For me, this started with a good cover. I'm very pleased with the way my covers turned out. I'm NOT an artist. I'd struggle to draw a decent circle. A good cover makes a HUGE difference. People might not judge a book by its cover (Who are we kidding? They will.) but unless they pick it up, they're not going to be judging it at all. This is where your cover artist comes in. I've heard stories about people paying over $1000 for cover art. Personally, I think that's insane. I'm not saying that art can't be worth that figure, or that the level of skill and work involved doesn't have a value, but as a s/p author I'm a consumer. The cover art is there to help me sell books. If it's going to take me a year to recoup the costs of the cover, then there's a problem. I have never paid more than $300 for a cover, actually the figure is lower than that but I'm not going to get that specific.

Get an Editor!
Once someone has picked up your book then the editing comes into play. For the sake of argument let's just take is as read that you're a decent writer. Your editing will make or break your book. Unfortunately this is where things get pretty damn hard. I believe it's pretty much impossible to self-edit, it just is. There are books out there professing to teach you how to do this but, in my opinion, they may as well be teaching you how to fly. It just isn't possible.
You wrote the book, you're invested in it, you're just too close to it to edit properly. Now, you might be able to do a reasonable job. You might have a great eye for typos (I don't) and a knack for great prose, but your book will never have been as good as it could have been with the right editor. The trouble there, of course, is finding a good one. The best editors are already working in publishing. Either that or they are extremely expensive. The Internet is chock-full of people touting their editing skills, yours for a reasonable price. All I can say here is to do your research and keep your fingers crossed. I've written three novels and I've had seven editors. Only two or three of those have been worth what I paid them and one or two did more harm than good. Even then things get missed. I hate it when a typo gets found. Most people are pretty good about it and let you know so you can make the changes.

Erm, Anyone Want to Buy a Book?
Finally it's down to release day and marketing and this is where the real challenge lies. No matter how good your book is, it's just another self-published book. AND it's your first book. The internet is actually dripping with newly self-published authors and all of them are struggling against the stigma that goes along with that label. Even traditionally published books can find it hard to find traction and they have a publishing house behind them.

Your challenge here is to find a way to make yourself stand out. I've tried a number of things. I've done blog tours, advertising on Facebook, Goodreads and Amazon, blog reviews, interviews, podcasts and subscription email-list advertising. Of the lot, the latter is the one I've found most effective. Unfortunately the king of that particular realm is Bookbub. Bookbub is basically a subscription mail-out service. Sign up for free and they will email you whenever they have a book in your chosen genre on sale at a discount, or even as a free download.

For the consumer Bookbub is brilliant. You get well-vetted books at a massive discount that you can be reasonably sure aren't awful. For the author/publisher they are even better. A Bookbub promotion is pretty well guaranteed to catapult you into the bestseller lists on Amazon and any other e-platform you advertise through them. The catch? It is nigh on impossible to get listed with them. I've managed it twice, which I consider a minor miracle. In addition they have no real competitors, so if Bookbub turn you down then your next best option isn't really going to compare.

I also think I've gained some traction by virtue of r/fantasy, Fantasy Faction and Grimdark Readers and Writers on Facebook. In those cases it's been about not being THAT guy. Not standing on the internet street corner screaming “buy my book!” I've been guilty of it in the past and I've witnessed others doing it. I think it's safe to say we're all sick of it and it doesn't work.

I'd like to be able to say I've worked out a sound marketing strategy, that I know what I'm doing. The truth is I'm blundering along and somehow, my frantic flounderings are allowing me to make some head-way. The bookshop stocking my books came as a result of the right person reading my book. I suppose, if you think about it, most publishing success comes down to that.

The only concrete advise I can offer anyone is to slow down. Your book will always be better for taking a bit of extra time on it. As for traditional vs. self-pub? IF you can get enough traction you can probably make more money in self-pub. That said, I'd take an agent and a deal tomorrow. Any author needs to put in the work with marketing but at least with a good publishing deal you get some level of help (I hope.)

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