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.

**

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.

***

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.

About Heather

I'm an independently published author and a freelance ebook formatter.
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11 Responses to Lessons Learned in Self-Publishing

  1. Carol Ervin says:

    Excellent advice! Let’s raise the level of independent publishing!

  2. I ran into a case of #2 recently, when I won an e-book in a giveaway. While the story had other problems, I think the final straw was the fact that entire passages (including dialogue) lacked paragraph breaks. Those long walls of text put me into full scanning mode, the same kind of mind-set that drive me toward not reading some blog posts. Of course, I had to put it down, due to it being unreadable.

    When I mentioned this in a review, the author posted a blog post about the fact that she was only allowed “four paragraphs per page” or something with Smashworlds, but she (wisely) took it down before I could get to read the entire article.

    On Smashworlds, it seems like the problem is still not fixed. Hopefully, it was fixed for the Amazon released.

    • Heather says:

      Only four paragraphs per page through Smashwords? What on earth could that person be talking about?! I’ve been formatting for Smashwords for over a year now. I’ve read the Smashwords Style Guide front to back six times. There’s no such thing as a paragraph requirement per page…*shakes head* What this looks like to me is the simple matter of an author who didn’t know what she was doing re:formatting, and instead of accepting the fact she did it wrong, she tried to explain it away.

      It’s amazing what can ruin the reading experience. Many people can look past a typo or two per page, but many others get completely thrown off by a single typo per forty pages. And this isn’t even just an indie issue. I recently read the newest release in a mystery series by a big-name trad pub author I enjoy, and I started highlighting the typos because there were so many! It takes a bit to bother me, so when I started getting irritated, I knew it was too much.

      And formatting? Heck, no. If I bought a book with no paragraph indents, I’d return it. Thanks for commenting :)

      • Margaret Y. says:

        I think I know what happened. The smashwords style guide says this: don’t try to add extra space in your manuscript by adding extra paragraph returns. Don’t put more than four in a row. The hapless writer thought this meant she only got four paragraphs per page. :::headdesk::: In ebooks, the text flows, there isn’t even any such thing as a “page.” When she formatted her book, she didn’t even know how ebooks work.

        This bothers me. I want all indies to make professional-level books. When one of us fails, it makes all of us look bad. I hope that author found a pro formatter to help.

      • Heather says:

        Oh, for goodness sake, I bet you’re right. May I second your ~headdesk~? I recently wrote a post on the way ebooks flow vs. Print books. I’ve been astonished at how few people actually understand ebooks. So many see them as nothing but a Word document, thinking all capabilities are the same. Sigh.

        Ditto. I do hope she found help. And I bet the post Chihuahua Zero mentioned was taken down so fast because a friend pointed out her misunderstanding! Thanks for your comment :)

  3. J.D.Hughes says:

    Great ‘ebooks 101′ post!

    My problem is that I had an editor with whom I disagreed and my novel has been left in a half-edited state. As a former promo director I’ve had some great relationships with film and video editors, but book editors seem to be a different proposition. This particular editor seemed to want a different novel from the one I had written.

    The search for a good editor continues.

    I Iiked your take on ebooks and print books. Formatting for print is not a consideration when writing screenplays and commercials, so remains a mystery to me!

    • Heather says:

      Hi, J.D., thanks for stopping by and complimenting my post. :)

      I know exactly what you mean. While I hit gold with my first editor (mentioned in the post, Sarah Billington, can’t pimp her star quality enough!), I do have several close friends who have gone through the same rigamarole, which is why I was so hesitant while searching — if one is going to shell out that kind of money, one wants their money’s worth, right? And a couple of my friends have certainly gotten the wool pulled over their eyes regarding several different editors. You must find someone who understands you, and can see what of your novel is a *part* of you and your voice, but can clean you up and make you better without touching said part. I’d definitely venture to say that not every editor is right for every person. We all want/need different things from an editor.

      I wish you luck on your search! Nothing beats word of mouth. You also might check elance.com. I’ve heard some pretty great editors loiter there. :)

      (print formatting is my favorite!)

  4. CAWhite says:

    So what you’re saying is…If you have $0 and can’t pay for an editor, you’re screwed?

    • Heather says:

      I didn’t say anything of the sort. There are plenty of books that have hoisted themselves up the bestseller list, unedited and based on the merit of story alone. However, what is the first thing these authors do when that first fat paycheck hits the bank? Hire an editor. The more you sell, the more reviews you are graced with. The higher your percentage of reviews, the more an unedited book will get less than it’s worth because of bad editing. Despite enjoying a story, many reviewers will drop a full star or more if the book is riddled with typos and bad grammar, and they WILL mention it in your review. Reviews are forever. For the life of your book, reviews mentioning bad editing will remain, even after you get the book edited. Happened to me. Happened to many of my friends.

      There are editors out there who are cheap yet good. Theo Fenraven. Vickie Taylor. They’re good for the author starting out who has no money. There are other authors out there willing to exchange beta reads for beta reads – another alternative until such time as you can afford an editor. But ultimately – you will need one. Every author does – even your favorites, whose books you gobble up. Trad books go through SEVERAL edits before ever seeing the light of day.

      What this post is about is that publishing books is a business and must be seen as a business in all aspects of doing it. Too many people slap together a photoshop, have their husband read for errors, and the put it on Amazon for millions of people to read, and they look like an amateur. A hobbyist. I did a year and a half ago, and I’m embarrassed, now trying to catch up on everything I wish I had done BEFORE hitting that publish button. If an author wants to stand up next to the big dogs of their genre, they have to do things right to stand out, and being professional in your approach to publishing should be high priority.

      • J.D.Hughes says:

        CA, if you take a look at, for instance, ’50 Shades of Grey’, the novel would have benefitted from a decent editor. Did it stop it being a mega success? No. But that book, was a phenomenon and as such rare. When there a ten zillion authors pumping out books on Amazon, the ones that are not fully professional will be discarded by the readers.

        They might forgive you if your book is a phenomenon, but if it’s any less, they will remember and either post bad reviews or simply refuse to buy anything you write in the future.

        So, as has been suggested, there are many good editors out there who won’t steal your kidneys and if you want to be taken seriously, you will avail yourself of one of them. Of course, you may be the next J.K. Rowling… in which case I apologise :)

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