Lessons Learned in Self-Publishing

This is a cross-post from my personal blog.  It doesn’t have to do *specifically* with formatting, but it has to deal with self-publishing in general, so I figured it to be relevant.

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This isn’t a post to chastise people who self-publish unedited, unprofessional books.  I was that person.  Last summer, the indie world opened up before me, and before I’d put much thought into it, I uploaded my books.  A few read-overs by me to check for typos, a couple reads by close friends and boyfriend, and I was good to go!  Right?

Negative.  I’ve learned a lot in the past year.

I’m not saying that these are lessons from someone who has found success.  I am not an authority on the subject.  But, I have lots of friends in the indie world, and we share all of our ups and downs, as well as the lessons we’ve learned.  And these four lessons are hugely important.

Lessons Learned # 1: I’ve learned the importance of beautiful covers: Taking a photo you like and slapping a title and a filter on it does not a book cover make.  My first “covers” (I use the term loosely) looked like vomit.  My first cover for The Temple was actually a photo of the Smithsonian National Gallery, flipped, made black-and-white, and the title added using Picasa.  For my old short story, Underneath, it was my favorite picture from a cave in Ireland.  That I took.  In the dark.

It was only around August of last year that the simple truth began to sink in–it is absolutely necessary for one’s cover to be professional in order to draw in readers.  Human beings are aesthetic–we love pretty, shiny things.  Take for example the two different covers shown of The Temple.  There is an obvious difference in quality.  One looks…hideous.  It doesn’t give you any indication of what kind of story hides behind the picture.  It maybe gives off a “spooky” look, but it’s so innocuous that it could be anything.  The other cover, on the other hand, is GORGEOUS.  Designed by my usual artist, Stephanie Mooney, this cover has a feeling to it immediately–she’s looking over her shoulder, so something is up.  She’s being watched?  Followed?  And there’s a temple in the background with some kind of magical, glowy light…what on earth could that mean?  Is it something ghostly?  Divine??  Not to mention the crisp lettering and perfect font.  It is exactly what a book cover should look like.

Many people don’t grasp this concept when they first join the indie revolution.  I shudder to see some of the sludge on Amazon today–and I shudder even more to know that MY books used to be part of that ever-present, unprofessional deluge.  It took me a couple months to instigate the change, but once I did, I realized I was better off to spend the money and hire a professional artist.  While Stephanie is my *usual* artist, I’ve also used Jack Wallen and Athanasios Galanis.

Lessons Learned #2: Interior formatting.  Readers WILL complain.  Any number of books on Amazon sport reviews stating something to the effect of “The formatting in this book is so bad that I couldn’t even read it.”  A friend of mine received a Kindle for Christmas, downloaded a free book, and promptly returned it.  “There were no indents!” she told me.  “How could I possibly read a book without paragraphs?”

Proper interior formatting is just as important as a pretty cover.  This isn’t as simple as just uploading a Word doc to Amazon — please, for pete’s sake, don’t upload a Word doc.  Ebooks are meant to function like web pages, i.e. in HTML.  Word processors, no matter how meticulously formatted, leave uber room for error.  If you have no basic knowledge of code, hire someone.  Just like covers, you want your book to be as professional as possible on the inside and the outside.  This isn’t a plug for my ebook formatting services — I’m damn good, but I’m also closed to new clients.  Do your homework and choose someone who formats in code and NOT in a word processor if you want your books to be as nice inside as the trads.

Lessons Learned #3: The blurb.  Oh, dear goddess, the blurb.  It’s like a monster in the closet–you know it’s gotta be there, but you want nothing to do with it. How on earth can you sum up your 150-thousand-word epic tome in two paragraphs?? You need to mention the Roaries who run Planet Dayme and are in battle with the Hellios on Planet Rors, and how one hundred years ago, they lived in peace but then Planet Norax exploded and it all went to hell…and then there’s that thing with King Mordel and his five beautiful daughters and the suitors from Planet Snark…

Not so much.  The reader doesn’t need to know a Complete History of ______.  All they need is a short, well-written implosion that makes the reader go, “Huh!”  Every word should be a soldier on the battlefield, drawing the person to read on by downloading the sample or even buying the book.  Key words: Make Every Word Count.

This means asking for feedback.  Tweaking and un-tweaking.  Removing sentences that your friends say don’t fit or aren’t necessary.  Consult people who have read it and people who haven’t.  The blurb is one of the ways you entice someone to take a chance on your books; don’t skimp.

And for F*@K’s sake people, if there is a typo in your blurb, you should be strung up by your toes.

Lessons Learned #4: THE MOST IMPORTANT LESSON OF ALL.

Editing.

“But, my grammar is perfect!” you say.

No.  It’s not.

“I don’t need help.  I’m a great writer!  I’d never write in a plot hole!” you whine.

Nope. Not true.  In my first draft of The Temple, Vale took a shower, answered a phone call, and then turned right around to take a bath.  In Eternal Youth, Callie was in Guatemala, and I called it South America…and my brother was born in Guatemala!!  In Abigail, the protagonist is sold into slavery, and then immediately left alone to have a conversation with her brother…yet doesn’t try to run away?

EVERY AUTHOR NEEDS AN EDITOR.  Yes, your book is your baby, and you think it sparkles and glows like a vampire in teen fiction.  But the harsh truth is every book, whether written by a 14-year-old girl or by Stephen King, NEEDS AN EDITOR.

There are a couple different types of editing.  Let me begin this by saying EVERY BOOK NEEDS A SUBSTANTIAL EDIT. This is the edit that digs so deep into your book it makes you sweat. This is an edit that seems to know your own book better than you do.  This is the edit that will turn your work of art into an absolute masterpiece.  After you get a substantial, you should get a copy-edit.  This is the edit that cleans up your grammar and makes sure you don’t have sentences that make no them there sense.  Finish out with a proofreader or two for last minute typos.  Courtney Milan wrote a great post about her methods here.  Go. Read.

I learned editing the hard way.  The problem indies run into is that editing is soooo expensive.  An average novel is around 70-thousand words; that can put an author into paying nearly $1100 on JUST the substantial edit for that book.  Add another 250 for the copy edit, another 100 per proofread, and you end up with quite a tally.

Authors don’t generally have this kind of money.  We work full-time jobs that pay the bills paycheck-to-paycheck.  Where on earth are we going to get an extra two grand to edit our book??  So this is why you find so many books online that are poorly edited.

But, it’s a vicious cycle.  You can’t afford editing, you’re gonna end up with bad reviews.  You do shell out the money for editing, and you’re looking at a very long time before that book earns enough back to break even.  At the rate The Temple sells, the money I just dished out on editing won’t be earned back for between 3 to 5 years.  Long time, huh?

Editing is not a scary process.  You have to remove yourself from the edits and look at them from an outsider’s point of view.  Here is a picture from my Abigail edits (an insane work in progress; I received the edits from my editor in late May.  I’m STILL working my way through them.  But, I’m doubling my word count and digging deeper into the world…you just can’t beat that.)  That’s a whole lotta purple.  But that purple is making Abigail into the book I know it can be.  And when I’m done, it will go to my copy editor, then hit a couple proofreaders, before I format and reupload the brand new book.

I’ve just gotta survive the edits!

My editor is Sarah Billington.  She’s FABULOUS.  And while I’m only just now going through edits on my previous novels, all of my future novels will be edited by my team before they ever hit the interwebs.

Hell, read any of my blog posts — guarantee they’re riddled with typos and awkward grammar.  Doesn’t mean I’m a terrible writer; just means I’m a writer.

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That’s all she wrote, folks.  Edits, blurbs, covers, and formatting.  The four MUSTs of professional publishing.  Sometimes, we just have to learn the hard way.  Then we rush to catch up.  I wish the knowledge and understanding I’ve gained in the past year had settled in just a little bit sooner.