Navigating the Self-Publishing Fandango

get publishedThis article is by Cate Morgan.

There’s no doubt about it: there is a lot of noise out there in the crowded, Dread Interwebz when it comes to what I refer to as the Self-Publishing Fandango.

It’s like a tango in the respect that it sounds sexy at the outset, and certainly looks sexy when it’s done by trained professionals. But without full knowledge of the steps, it can turn violent in terms of tangled legs, stepped-on toes, and ballistic stilettos impaling innocent bystanders. In other words, disappointing and not pretty for all concerned.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. We all know the publishing landscape has changed dramatically with the wide acceptance of eBooks and the wild popularity of the Kindle. That’s not news. What is news is authors’ perspectives changing right along with it, and as dramatically as a sudden stiletto to the eye.

Why Self-Publish?

There are many reasons to self-publish, and as many routes to get there. Perhaps you feel you’ve only got one book in you—one story to tell—and you’d simply like to get it out in the world without pursuing a traditional path. Perhaps you’re a dedicated hobbyist (which is not to say you lack craft), or you want complete control over your own work. These are all valid reasons.

We’re all writers here, so I think we’re all aware that self-publishing is not the path to untold riches and/or eternal glory. At least, no more than buying a lottery ticket is.

It is, however, a viable business model in its own right, or simply one facet of an author’s chosen model. Personally, I love the hybrid models, and I think it’s going to be happening more and more in the future. In fact I’d go so far as to predict that in five years’ time the hybrid path will become the most common one.

Here are some of the ways I’ve seen self-publishing used by established authors over the last several years:

  • Hugh Howey went the primarily self-published route, though he has an agent to handle things like foreign distribution rights. He stated at the Self-Publishing panel at Tampa Bay Comic Con last summer that an author can do for themselves everything a traditional publisher does—if they’re willing to put in the work.
  • Extensively published authors like mystery and romance writer Jennifer Ashley breathed new life into her backlist by self-publishing them on Amazon.
  • Paranormal romance author and host of the Round of Words in Eighty Days writing group Kait Nolan self-published her debut novel Red while she submitted it to agents and publishers in the traditional way. She ended up signing with Laurie McLean, and when they got a deal with a traditional house, Kait took Red down temporarily before it was re-released under her publisher’s name. She also consistently self-publishes novella series titles for her avid readers.
  • The hilarious, raw, and often foul-mouthed Chuck Wendig also uses a hybrid business model to great effect, making his blog the focal point of his entire platform. He also does weekly Flash Fiction challenges to engage his fellow pen monkeys and potential new readers.

Let The Fandango Begin!

Okay, now that we’ve established the ways in which self-publishing might be an effective weapon in the savvy author’s arsenal, let’s look at how one can do it as painlessly (and cost-effectively) as possible.

It goes without saying that first off, you have to write a book. Duh, right? Get on with it, already, you say. I have a book right here. It’s chock full of cheerful, hot pink 16-pt. Comic Sans and gamboling kittens and/or unicorns. It other words, it’s perfect. Now let me tell you about my character…

All kidding aside, it’s fantastic that you have a book. It’s shiny and innocent, and you worked really, really hard on it with the help and encouragement of your fellow Mythic Scribes. You’ve done countless revision passes (at least three, right?) before handing it off to BETA readers, who loved it. You’ve incorporated only their consistent and pertinent notes and given it a final polish. You’re ready to start. You think. (Breathe, Grasshopper. This is the exciting bit!)

Now that you are the proud possessor of the Book of Books, you have some decisions to make. First, what do you want out of self-publishing? (A million dollars isn’t a reasonable expectation). Do you want to make a living writing strictly through self-publishing to maintain complete control over your portfolio of works? Or are you more interested in a hybrid path, or publishing your high-quality fan fiction? Just remember this is a marathon, not a sprint—and also what you get out of self-publishing depends largely on what you put into it.

Three-Pronged Attack

There’s a three-pronged attack to Self-Publishing, depending on how you want to approach it:

1. Electronic

There are a lot of ways to go about doing this, but why go around to multiple sites and upload 12-15 times when one site like Smashwords will do all the online distribution for you for free? But wait—THERE’S MORE! Smashwords also has a Style Guide with a pre-formatted template and an auto-vetter system to check the formatting for you. In a couple of minutes it comes back with error messages, you fix them, re-upload, and voila! You’re published!

Smashwords also has a list of affordable cover artists in case you don’t want to do it yourself, and their own store. (I chose to do my own cover art in MS Word by using royalty-free stock photo sites like Shutterstock. There’s great instructions on how to go about doing this from Creativindie’s Derek Murphy at The Creative Penn.) You can also choose to opt out of any vendors that you don’t want your book to be available on, and generate your own author interview.

However, you may want to opt out of the Amazon option because not every book on Smashwords gets uploaded to Amazon, as the Big River has yet to implement a batch system to upload the Smashwords catalogue in bulk. Unless you’re offering your book under the perma-free option; then you can upload to Amazon directly.

2. Print

There are plenty of POD presses out there, but Createspace is the one most mentioned in terms of ease of use, author-friendliness, and affordability. They can also distribute directly to Amazon KDP if that’s the only online vendor you’re interested in. They also have paid services available, like professional editing, but distribution is free.

POD presses still get a lot of flak these days, but so did self-publishing once, and like self-publishing, they’ve come a long way—but you still have to be wary. POD is not the same as vanity presses who make a business of exploiting authors. Indie publishers and mainstream eBook publishers who also offer print books for sale (like my own publisher, Samhain Publishing, Ltd) utilize a POD model to save on overhead and pass the savings on to their authors in the form of higher royalty rates. Traditional publishers, however, print oodleplexes of books, and when books get remaindered and returned—or plain don’t sell—those books get burned. (Pauses for the vast disturbance of the Force caused by millions of writers gasping in shock.)

3. Audio

Did you know there’s approximately three or so million truckers out on the roads, listening to every audio book they can get ahold of? (Side Note: can you imagine a burly, tattooed big-rig driver named Bruce listening to the latest Nora Roberts series while driving an eighteen wheeler named Lola cross-country? Because I obviously can.)

The good news is Bruce and his big-rig buddies can find your book, too, if you use a service like Amazon-sponsored ACX. They’ll do all the engineering, recording, and distribution for you—and voice actors (another struggling creative bunch) will leave you audition tracks so you can pick the right voice for your book. And if you can’t afford to pay them up front, then royalty-sharing is another possible business model available on ACX.

Okay, Miss Smarty-Pants Author. Now How Do I Actually Get People To BUY My Book?

Wow, you don’t want much, do you? Okay, okay—keep your poisoned pens and bloody stilettos to yourselves. Sheesh.

Believe me, there are plenty of ways an enterprising author can get the word out about their new release without reverting to a whole Green-Eggs-And-Spam experience. But I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again—this is a marathon, not a sprint.

For me, it comes down to three key things: Being approachable, being accessible, and being professional.

Platform

All the grown-ups in the book biz today are talking about platform. Platform, platform, platform, until you want to take a running leap off one (or push them off of one). But it doesn’t have to be that bad, really.

First, get thee to the bookery of your choice and obtain copies of Create Your Writer Platform by Writer Digest’s Chuck Sambuchino and Rise of the Machines by Kristen Lamb (and check their blogs out, here and here respectively, while you’re at it). Read the books. Study the case studies in them. Highlight the good bits in scorching hot pink. But nothing compares to my personal bible, Write. Publish. Repeat, which takes you through the entire process. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Back? Okay.

The best, easiest, and most cost effective way I’ve found of marketing a book—traditionally published or otherwise—is by starting with a simple blog. Personally, I like WordPress, but that’s just me. I like the plug-and-play templates they have available, customized widgetry, and the dashboard that tells me from what avenue my followers use to stalk me (Twitter versus Facebook, for example), what search terms people are using when they do find me, and what my more popular posts are.

But wait, you say. I don’t have anything to blog about except my book.

Not true, say I. You have your writing journey, research notes to share, book reviews—don’t think of a blog so much as a way to sell books as a way to network with the people who will either (a) potentially buy your book when it’s ready—this is why you want to prime the pump as early as possible—or (b) get the word out to the people who will. This way when you have an announcement or milestone to share, your excitement will leak out onto them, and they’ll get excited on your behalf. The idea is to make your blog perform as many tricks as possible without you having to manage them all.

I got my first followers from blog-hop writing communities like A Round of Words in Eighty Days (weekly or twice weekly blog posts) and Alex Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writers Support Group (first Wednesday of every month). I write these posts ahead of time and schedule them on the designated days. What’s great about A Round of Words is that it gives you something to blog about—your stated writing goals for the round and your progress in them. WordPress also lets me cross-pollinate content to my other social media accounts, thus ensuring it reaches all my followers—including those on Goodreads.

But the real key? Talking (or connecting) with people online in an open, friendly, and engaging way—enthusiastic, occasionally witty, but always approachable. Study the pros who do it well, and see if you can’t manage to emulate a technique or two.

The real trick to platform is thinking of it as a way to make yourself—rather than just your book—available to readers. Readers know where to find books, and they’ll make up their minds fairly quickly about whether they want to buy yours or not based on your online demeanor.

If you’re going to solicit people directly, though, find a fun, friendly, non-spammy way of doing it. Offer something in return—an ARC, a giveway, a contest or free gift. (Goodreads has excellent resources for this sort of thing). People love something for nothing. Or offer to do a guest post on someone’s blog in exchange for a review.

Book Bloggers

Book bloggers are a good way of getting reviews ahead of time, too. If you’ve produced a high-quality product, then Book Bloggers offer you a way to solicit them directly for reviews through an online form or other submission guidelines.

Just like with agents and publishers, however, you want to make sure you do your homework. Nothing shrieks “Amateur Hour!” like someone who doesn’t.

Free Offers/Deep Discounts/Price Pulsing

These are techniques that can work well in a couple of ways. Remember when I said people love free stuff? It’s true. If you’re writing a series, consider offering the first book for free in perpetuity. Picky readers will be more willing to take a chance on a new, especially self-published author if it doesn’t cost any monetary investment on their part. Voracious readers tend to have teetering TBR piles and not nearly enough time to read them all, so anything that makes it easy for them to read your book is a win-win for both the author and the reader.

(Myself, I offer free bonus material to my publisher-produced series to tide my readers over between books, and to gain the interest of potential new readers. I’m also intending to release collections of my flash fiction for free as well.)

If offering your book for free forever makes your wallet whimper, then consider either deep discounts or price pulsing, the latter of which combines all three of these techniques into one. You can either release your first book at a deep discount like $0.99 and then subsequent books at full price. Remember, the idea is to gain interest. (Write. Publish. Repeat. refers to this as opening “funnels”.)

Or, you can offer your book free for a trial period, say thirty days, then bump the price to a deep discount for another thirty days, and then once you’ve got some word of mouth bump the price to a full—but still affordable—price. This is price pulsing.

Price pulsing can also be used another way. When publishing your second book, garner interest by offering the first book for free, with a temporary deep discount on the second, and then moving both to full price after a certain time period has passed. Then bundle the whole thing and sell it as a set. The sky is quite literally the limit in terms of what the wily author-entrepaneur can devise.

So the moral of the story is: Be bold in your choices. Be kind in your interactions. But above all, be professional.

Your Turn

Are you considering self-publishing? If you aren’t, why not?

If you have self-published, what was your experience like? Do you have any advice for your fellow Scribes?

About the Author:

Cate Morgan writes. It’s pretty much the only thing she knows how to do. Currently she writes the action-packed apocalyptic fantasy novella series Keepers of the Flame for Samhain Publishing, Book 2 of which (Brighid’s Mark) is due out April 29, 2014. She also just released the first book of her free, self-published companion series, Keepers of the Flame: Origins via Smashwords in December.  You can visit her blog at catemorgan.com, and can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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Tyrean Martinson
4 years ago

Excellent post on self-publishing! I think you nailed all the necessary ingredients, especially the need to get feedback and to create good content. Great insights into helpful websites and books, too. 🙂

I think cover art can be created quite nicely with stock images, or via artists found online.

Philip_Overby
6 years ago

typemonkeytype I’m not one of these that thinks self-publishing is a fad or is going away, but I do think it will continue to evolve. Self-publishing is still kind of the wild west of publishing, so I understand when some people are reticent to check it out. However, a lot of the benefits are too good to pass up as well. That’s why I always keep all options open and I encourage anyone who wants to get into writing to do the same.

typemonkeytype
typemonkeytype
6 years ago

Philip_Overby
You’re absolutely right, Philip. Just because self-pub is the shiny new toy on the block, doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone. (Beware all “Gold Rush” sentiments!). The savvy business owner considers the model best for them, and remains flexible as those models change.

Philip_Overby
6 years ago

Great post, Cate! You have a lot of relevant info here for why I start considering my options. I do plan to self-publish at some point, but I hope to try the traditional route at first. While self-publishing is become more and more attractive as time goes by, I still want to carefully weigh my options before coming to a decision. Thanks again for the insightful article!

BB Griffith
6 years ago

Great article. So much of what makes a self-publisher successful comes down to writing style. Like it or not, exposure=success. Good, consistent output=exposure. Guys like me, who write one book a year, really have a marathon in front of them. It’s taken me four years to get enough exposure to be consistently selling in one way or another, but I’m okay with that.

Mike Cairns
6 years ago

SAHunt Mike Cairns  
Hi
I average about 30K words a week, most weeks. So in a typical month, I’ll write a full length and maybe some of the shorter serialised stuff I post on my blog. 
I churn out the first draft and dump it in the virtual drawer with the others and come back to it in six months. So I’m generally editing stuff from six months ago and just moving through it on a rolling cycle. I’m still pretty new to the whole thing, to be honest, but i’m working with a terrific editor to get the first trilogy perfect, the first of which is out already and the next comes out following some novellas around June. once the final part comes out in November, the aim is to quicken the pace and get one out every three months…. That’s the aim, but we shall see 🙂

TraciKenworth
TraciKenworth
6 years ago

This is informative!!

typemonkeytype
typemonkeytype
6 years ago

It IS liberating, isn’t it Tony? I, too, enjoy the control and working at my own pace. It’s an exciting time, when the rules are so fluid there really aren’t any. Eventually things will stabilize, but for now I’m enjoying the show.

typemonkeytype
typemonkeytype
6 years ago

I can’t wait for the time when books are simply books again, without the “us” and “them” mentality. The same thing happened when eBooks first blew up, but now the books published by my publisher are considered traditionally published instead of indie.
And congrats on making those rent payments!

typemonkeytype
typemonkeytype
6 years ago

Diane Tibert
Ugh, the Marketing Fandango! Part of the problem, I think, is not knowing what will work and what won’t until you’re deep into launch, and then learning for next time. Good luck!

typemonkeytype
typemonkeytype
6 years ago

Mike Cairns
I totally agree, Mike! I tend to work on a 90-day quarterly cycle, and as much as I love my traditonal(ish) publisher, there’s no way they can keep up with my pace of putting out more than one book a year. I have a full time day job, so working at my own pace (and having control) is liberating.

SAHunt
SAHunt
6 years ago

Mike Cairns A novel a month? How does that even work?

Mike Cairns
6 years ago

Hi Cate
Great post, thanks, lots of nice tips. 
I’m halfway through writepublishrepeat and enjoying it so far. It’s a little more to the point that SPP is!
I’m self published and see no reason for that to change. I love having the control and the rights. Another bonus which I don’t think you mentioned above is being able to move at your own pace. I write a novel a month and as the sales of my early ones increase, I intend to publish at a similar-ish pace, editing and design allowing. A trad publisher would never let me do that. 
cheers
Mike

Diane Tibert
6 years ago

“A million dollars isn’t a reasonable expectation.”
No? Darn. Perhaps some day.
Yes, I have self-published several times. There was a huge learning curve in the beginning. At first I thought the task was insurmountable, but I kept moving forward, one step at a time, and after a year had my first book for sale.

The advice I can share appears on a series of blog posts I’m currently writing (almost done) called Draft to Book in 30 Days: Publishing 101: http://dianetibert.com/publishing101/

My struggle–like many others have–is with marketing. I’d rather be writing, but of course I must sell the product I produce. I’m having my first virtual book launch on March 28th. This is new territory for me, so it will be interesting to see how it all works out. I’ve visited a few other book launches on the web to get tips.

I’ve been blogging for more than three years, so I have a firm foot on the Internet, yet I don’t feel my blog is helping me sell books. In January I took David Gaughran’s advice and began a newsletter using MailChimp. We’ll see what that does for me this year.

SAHunt
SAHunt
6 years ago

typemonkeytype Antonio del DragoSAHuntI feel so bad for those artists, needlessly doing all that work for free.

typemonkeytype
typemonkeytype
6 years ago

Antonio del Drago SAHunt
I recently came across a site called 99 Designs that’s handy for getting cover art at what seem to be reasonable prices. You enter a profile of what you’re looking for and designers compete for the winning entry by submitting designs.

Antonio del Drago
6 years ago

SAHunt Cate’s covers actually look good.  
However, I agree that for most authors creating your own cover is a losing proposition.  Unless someone has considerable artistic talent and experience in graphic design, odds are that the cover will turn out terrible… and will actually scare people away from reading the book.

Adam Ross
Adam Ross
6 years ago

I did the same. Indie-pubbed my first two novels and short story collection and have been making almost enough to pay the rent. And with distribution and quality improving, it’s really only a matter of time before brick bookshops start carrying more indie titles.

Tony Dragani
Tony Dragani
6 years ago

I self-published my last book, and plan to self-publish the next one as well. I like the level of control that I have over the final product, as well as the larger cut of the profits that I receive. The only drawback is that it’s hard to get into brick and mortar bookstores, but I can live with that trade off.

SAHunt
SAHunt
6 years ago

> I chose to do my own cover art in MS Word by using royalty-free stock photo sites like Shutterstock

[visible cringe]

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