Self-publishing isn’t for the faint of heart

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Writers want to get their words in front of the eyes of the world’s readers, but the entrance to the temple of publishing has long been carefully guarded. The arrival of the Internet, though, changed the controlled flow of approved writing to a flood of verbiage. Traditional publishers withdraw more and more into selling established authors, while small presses will get new people into print, but the books come out in qualities varying from mimeographed to the standard product of a print-on-demand service. Promotion is left to the author’s friends and relations.

So what’s a new author to do? If you’re like me, you’ve collected a pile of letters from publishers telling you that what you’ve written doesn’t meet their needs at this time. What it is they need, and when they might need something else is never specified.

But you’re sure you’ve written a fine novel, and since traditional publishers won’t talk to you and small presses can’t do what needs doing, you’re considering self-publishing. Can you succeed?

Yes, you can. In addition to the writing itself, you’ll have to do everything a publisher used to do. You were going to have to do a lot of that anyway with a small press. But the learning curve is steep, and you’ve got to climb up the whole way to succeed. Here’s an over view of how to publish yourself:

1. Write well

Does that sound obvious? Unfortunately, it does to many writers, too obvious to carry it out. Read a lot of books. Take your writing to a writers’ group — a group that will offer criticism without regard to your feelings, preferably a group that has some published writers in it. Take a class, but make sure the teacher knows the subject. You’re never done learning how to write, but there comes a time when you’ve learned enough to create books worth reading. Until then, study and practice.

2. Edit better

Put the book aside. No matter how much of a hurry you’re in, once you’ve finished the text, leave it alone for a while — long enough to forget things. Your first edit is for content. Does the story make sense? Are there any dangling plot lines, characters not doing what you want them to do, or scenes that don’t belong? Does the story end as you want it to?

The second edit is for all things mechanical. Run the spell-checker, but don’t rely on it, and turn off the grammar checker. Computers can’t check grammar. At this point, read the manuscript backward — last page to first. That’s to keep yourself from being caught up in the story so the typos stand out.

3. Lay out the book like a book, not a handout

If you have a lot of money, you can use InDesign. If you’re a typical author — having more sense than money — get Scribus. It’s free. The word processing program you used to write the manuscript isn’t a layout program, and if you want a book that looks professional, you need the software that does this. You need page numbers, headings — the book’s title, your name, and possibly artwork — and scene breaks. The start of chapters should look different from ordinary pages. In other words, you’re making a real book.

When you’re done with the layout, export the file as a .pdf, and go through it again to find the errors you missed in the last edit. Make sure the page numbers don’t jump the track somewhere in the middle.

4. Make the cover your book will be judged by

Again, you can spend money on Photoshop, or you can download Gimp for free. Or you can go with something else. Whichever you choose, you have to make a cover that distinguishes your book from the thousands of others — in your genre, style, main character’s first name…. Look at other self-published books, then look at what traditional publishers sell. The more your cover resembles the latter, the better. Remember that a paperback book has three parts to its cover — front, back, and spine. The front and spine need the title and your name, while the back has to have a write-up to tell readers why they want to buy your book. (For an e-book, that will go on the page where it’s for sale.) Some graphics on the back to make it look not like the front will help. Also find design elements to tie the front and back and the interior graphics — headers and scene breaks — together as one theme.

Does this mean you have to spend money on images? Perhaps, though if you’re persistent, you’ll find that government agencies have lots of pictures paid for by tax dollars that we all can use. Since I write science fiction, among other things, the Hubble Telescope is a blessing. And there are websites that will sell you images for not too much.

5. Publish or perish

Put the book on the market. It will never be perfect, so there comes a point when you have to press the send button. If you’ve done the previous things and done them well, you’re ready. So where does it go?

You’ve seen those companies that will print out your book for a fee? That’s the wrong answer, unless you’ve magically written the Next Big Thing © that will sell millions out of the back of your car. The choice here, for better or worse, is Amazon. Get a CreateSpace account. Submit your files — interior and cover — in .pdf format and wait for them to tell you if anything needs corrected. Some things they’ll tell you can be ignored. Then order proof copies. Scan for errors anywhere, and yet again, you will find some. Make the corrections and resubmit. Then put it up for sale. Since you’re a publisher, give yourself a press name — serious or whimsical, depending on who you are.

That’s the physical book. E-book formatting is even more of a pain, but that’s how many people want to buy. Calibre is helpful software for setting this up, and Smashwords.com is even better. And Smashwords has a free manual about how to set up your word processor document for the website’s system.

6. Pester the world with promotion

Annoy the stuffing out of anyone who is a reader. Well, not really. The better thing to do is find where your audience is. Where did you find the books you enjoy reading? What websites get comments from people who like your genre?

Social media offers a lot of promise here, but that can be overwhelming. Don’t do everything. Do what your readers do. For example, I have a Pinterest account, but I do little with it. If you write romance, though, you may find that site useful. But don’t flood your outlets with one ad after another. Engage with people. Participate in discussions. Give readers content that shows you’re an interesting person, not just someone with a book to sell.

7. In the end

Does this sound easy? If it does, go back and read the article once more. It’s not. As novelist Thomas Mann once wrote, “a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” There are no guarantees, and if you do make money, it’ll be a while before that amounts to anything you can live on.

But there is good news. Once you’ve gone through all these steps, you get to do it again with your next book.

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