We left our befuddled author standing before the imposing gates to the Great Courtyard of Publishing and wondering how to gain admittance. Since then she’s spent a great deal of time with queries to agents and publishers and is disappointed by the responses—the very few she’s received for her many attempts. She can’t seem to find a wedge to open that gate and have someone seriously consider her work. So now she is ready to think about self-publishing.
The array of reasons for wanting to publish remains the same for most writers. Most dream of that big advance that will allow them a chance to write full-time. Most have spent years trying to work their writing into a schedule with the work that actually pays the bills. They long for writing to pay the bills so it IS their work and so they can write all those things that have been swimming around in their heads for a very long time. Oh, to have the opportunity to get them down on paper (or into the computer!) while still keeping a roof over their heads!
Others feel their work is important enough to gain them recognition. They see themselves at signings with a long line of devoted fans who appreciate what they’ve done, doing interviews and admiring store windows filled with displays of their books. They may feel they only had this one book in them and it deserves notice as the glowing culmination of their efforts.
Some writers have much more modest ambitions. Perhaps they only want to share their work with family and friends. Some have written something that has a targeted audience—say a children’s book, a new crafts technique, health insight, spiritual or political message—and they know their audience will be interested, but they also know their book and the New York Times bestseller list will never meet.
Still others simply believe in what they’ve done and want to share it with people who will appreciate it. For them it’s not about fame and fortune, it’s simply about “the work.”
Before our writer decides to investigate the world of self-publishing, she needs to be very clear about WHY she wants to publish. If she’s dreaming of that big advance she will have to let that one go and shift to knowing that if she self-publishes, 100% of the marketing will fall on her shoulders. It’s still possible that she’ll be able to make money, but her marketing efforts will be eating into her writing time as well as her “real-job” time.
I think this is the biggest mistake new writers make and it can lead to deep disappointment and, in some cases, financial disaster: Only the darlings of the big publishers get widespread promotion these days and they represent LESS than .001 percent (yes, POINT ZERO ZERO ONE) of the new titles published each year (which is currently nudging one million). Even the big publishers expect their non-star authors to do a great deal of promotion on their own (and at their own expense). If you do manage to get a big publisher there are ways to work their system to your advantage and get some help with promotion, but we are talking about self-publishing here and the writer, in effect, becomes the publisher.
So our writer begins researching the online publishing opportunities. Most of these companies produce their books with POD (Print On Demand) technology. This allows books to be produced as they are needed (ordered/sold) rather than the traditional print run of 1,000 to 5,000 copies. (I will address the traditionally printed books next time around.)
POD has gotten a bad rap because of the proliferation of self-published titles. Though many of the big houses produce their less prominent titles this way, many book stores and reviewers refuse to consider POD titles, failing to make the distinction between “self-published” and “press-published” and using, instead, production method to guide their choice. They never consider that much of what is on their shelves from the big publishers is produced POD.
So, the online publishing companies: There are a great many of them and you must be very cautious. Be sure that you understand exactly what they offer and how much to will cost. Several say they will publish your book for free, but we all know “there is no free lunch” and there is no really “free” publishing, either.
Many of the online companies start their publishing packages at a low price (maybe $600) and then begin adding additional charges for editing packages, cover design packages, promotional packages, distribution packages—the list expands with the creativity of their marketing department and can easily exceed $15,000.
For an author wanting 25-100 copies of a book for friends and family, who is not interested in having distribution or promotion, who just wants their manuscript turned into physical books for them to personally distribute, online companies can provide the perfect solution. What they cannot do is turn a book into a national bestseller through what they offer. That work falls strictly on the author’s shoulders.
So, our author has studied her motivation, her expectations and the amount of money she’s willing to spend. She’s made herself a realistic and practical marketing plan and a budget that will allow her to follow it. She has carefully studied the various online publishers, looked at the books they’ve published and determined the range of observable quality of what they’ve produce for their authors evidenced by the titles, subject, book covers and descriptions, (which are most often written by the authors) that they feature on their websites.
At this point (if not long before she began sending out those original queries) she must decide if her ms. needs professional editing and proofreading. If she had a professional evaluation done, it may have indicated some of the problems that needed to be addressed, which could be as minor as punctuation and typos that needed correcting or as complicated as problems with the plot or POVs. If this step has not been taken, it must be if she’s to have any hope of selling her books.
And this is admittedly dicey. You need to understand that you mother or your best friend might not be the best judge of your work and whether it’s ready to go to print! How can you know whom to trust (and pay) to evaluate or edit or proofread your work?
Many of the online publishers will offer packages for these services, some quite expensive, but regardless of the charges, many will not actually read your book, or will simply wait awhile, then tell you what you want to hear (“this is great, the book has a lot of potential, perfect for today’s market,” etc.). They may simply run your work through some sort of editing software and charge you for “editing,” having never read it or noticed that the name of one of your characters changes halfway through the book because you forgot to do the “find & change” on all of your chapters.
Only you can decide how important this is to you. If you’re convinced what you have is ready to print, then go for it. Bypass all the services offered and get your book produced. Just be aware that when people read your book, consider carrying it in their store, review it on Amazon (assuming they have somehow learned that it exists and have looked for it there), these things, uncorrected will come back to haunt you.
The ideal solution is to find an independent editor that is a good fit with your work, one you will be able to discuss the book with, who is familiar with your genre (romance, poetry, history, fiction, childrens’) and who you believe will offer a fair and meaningful evaluation. It will be money well spent. While you may not agree with all their observations, you will at least have a valuable second opinion that deserves consideration.
Before I finish, I want to recount my own interaction with an online publisher that I decided to experiment with as far as marketing is concerned. This was a number of years ago when the online self-publishing was just beginning to attract attention. I’d already published the book and it was my own work I offered up to see if any of what they promised was true.
I first corresponded first with the “president” of the company, explaining that the book was already published, that I was a small press and that if the service they provided was as promised (in particular “reaching more than 5,000 book club members”), that I had a number of books I would be interested in promoting. He (naturally) assured me it was a great idea, hoped we could work together, was anxious to see my book, etc. So I paid my money and waited for the first step to be completed: an “editor” would read and evaluate my book, then write a description that would be used to present my book to the various markets (which included reviewers and radio markets as well as those book clubs.)
Months passed. I heard nothing so emailed to find out what was going on. I received a form reply saying they hadn’t gotten to it. Two more months passed and I contacted everyone there that I could to say that because I had never heard anything from them I expected a refund. I got a terse form letter from the accounting department (!) saying it wasn’t their problem if I didn’t like the evaluation they’d given me!
I finally reached someone on the phone and explained that my problem was not with what they had provided, but rather that they had provided nothing!
Finally, I received a badly reworded (and not even grammatical!) rendition of my existing cover copy. The book cover and description (I insisted they use my original) was going to go out to all the supposed “book club members.” I then learned—through searching online—that they had their own “book club” which apparently consisted of their existing mailing list. I complained to the “president” and received no response.
In another month or two I got an actual letter from a supposed “Christian Book Club” saying they just loved my book, it was perfect for them and for another $600 they’d offer it to their members. This was a surprise when I considered that my book, while set in the 18th century, involved graphic sex, homosexual relationships, sodomy, violence, sexual abuse and no fondness for the Catholic Church (it’s not as bad as all that, but it is certainly not suitable for a supposed “Christian” book club!) I pointed this out to them, which made them huffily reply that the letter had been a “mistake.” Gee…ya think?
I finally got in touch with the president again and he offered several services to make amends, which I suspect were never completed. And by the way, if my book was actually presented to 5,000 people of any sort is it REALLY possible that not even one person was interested enough to buy a copy?
Already-long-story-short, the company went out of business and emerged (with the same “president”) under another name—due to an abundance of lawsuits, no doubt—and surprisingly he had the nerve to contact me and suggest we work together under the new company!
I offer this embarrassing bit of personal history in a effort to caution you to be very careful with your own expectations and when selecting the services offered by some of these companies. I’m sure some do exactly as promised, and some have been around for a number of years and are still in business. Investigate. Google complaints against the company. Check out the websites of some of their authors. Check the reviews on Amazon of the books, or if they are even available there. You just want to be sure you have a clear understanding of what you will get for your money and be sure it’s what you need or want to make your publication dreams come true. When you are self-publishing, the buck stops with your SELF!
Next time: How to actually become your own publisher and if that’s really what you want.
Comments as always, are welcome!