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Archive for the ‘Self-Publish?’ Category


My friend Anne and I are self-publishing a book. It’s a beautiful story about a kitten named Tapioca, who is looking for a home. Anne first told me about the book a year ago. A friend of hers had begun the story and illustrations with her son, David*. And then Anne’s friend died.

“I’d like to finish this for her and her son,” Anne told me, “but not quite yet.”

A few months ago Anne brought up the story again. “I think it’s time,” she said. “If I send you the notes and sketches, can  you use them to finish the story and illustrations?”

I agreed, and in due course the package arrived–a half-written story, pages of notes, and sketches. I looked at everything, then started keying the story into Word so I could begin working with it–and so I could see where it needed to go. When I got to the end of her notes, I had enough to know how the story should end.

I sent it down to Anne. She enlisted her husband Geoffrey’s editorial eye, and we revised–but not much. This was a book for an audience of one; it was important that we retain as much of the writer as possible. I started work on the illustrations, basing then on the sketches and notes Anne’s friend had left.

Anne provided art direction. I revised, and last night I finally sent the finished files off to CreateSpace. We’ll have our proofs in a few days.

Making the book for David has felt like a good and right thing to do–but behind the “feel-good” part of the story lies the technological advances and falling production prices that make it possible for people like Anne and me to create a book for an audience of one without beggaring ourselves. This story would not have been possible five years ago. Anne and I are both designers. We might have made the book, printed out the best color copies we could afford, and laboriously glue the whole thing together. We’ve done such things in the past.

But we could not have had a high-quality, professional-grade book available not only for our audience of one, but for a world-wide audience for around $50. It just couldn’t have happened. But now it has. We will review our proofs in a few days. If all is well, I will click “OK” and the book David and his mom started and Anne, Geoffrey, and I finished will available to David–and to anyone else to whom we choose to make it available.

It boggles the mind. One of the major barriers between writers and published authors has just melted away.

Good thing, right? Well, in some ways. Like any business, publishing must pay homage to the bottom line. Books that get published are books that publishers believe will sell. Many good and worthy books are refused because publishers believe they won’t appeal to a broad enough audience. Now, all those books can be published.

Before we break out the champagne, though consider this: the increased ease of publication means that many books get published that probably shouldn’t be–books that have been poorly conceived, sloppily written, insufficiently edited and critiqued, and badly designed and covered. In the past, the high cost of book production and the very process of editing ensured that before books went on press they underwent a certain amount of scrutiny–the editor, the art director, the designer, the typesetter, the proofreader, the printer, and the author all had the opportunity to look, to see, and to correct. A lot of money was riding on getting the book right.

But now that barrier is gone. As Anne, Geoffrey and I have just proven, it is possible to take a book from concept to completion for less than $50. But that’s only because all three of us were willing to donate our time, and because among the three of us we had the skills to ensure that the book we produced would meet the need of its one-person primary audience. To say that it is possible to produce a high-quality book for $50 as a general rule is no truer today than it was five years ago. Good books still require skilled editing, proofreading, and designing. Books that sell also require skilled marketing.

Take, for instance, my last novel, Good On Paper. Counting all the proofs, I paid about $150 for book production. I paid ten times that for editing. It would have been more had I not had a good and dear friend who produces magazines volunteer to proofread for me. And it would have been more yet had I not happened to be a typesetter and book cover designer.

What it comes down to in the end is this: The drop in self-publishing costs is turning book production into a cottage industry. But publishing a quality book is more than just putting ink on paper. A quality book results from major investments of time, skill, and money. The best writer in the world needs a good editor. The best editor in the world needs a sharp-eyed proofreader. The best book in the world needs an experienced, savvy designer.

So here are the questions: How good do you believe your book is? Is it good enough to stand up to editing? Does it deserve the time it’ll take for one more read-through to polish the ideas and phrasing? Does your book deserve to be proofread? Does it deserve to be given its best face? Does it deserve the marketing necessary to reach its intended audience? Just how good is your book? And how good do you want it to be?

*Not his real name

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Good question. It used to be that self publishing was seen as the “easy way out” for books that couldn’t make the grade at mainstream publishing houses. For years, saying someone had self-published led to barely-suppressed smirks. Of course a self-published book would be sub-standard, went the reasoning. If it had been good enough to be profitable, a publisher would have taken it. Right? Somehow we all assumed that a book was good only if lots of people wanted to read it. There is a grain of truth in this; publishers, like responsible businesses everywhere, must keep a healthy bottom line, or they cease to exist. Clearly they have a responsibility to select the best books that they believe will appeal to the widest audience, and generate the greatest returns on their considerable investment in time and resources.

But what about the wonderful books that may address a desperate need in a comparatively small audience? Books that don’t seem likely to meet the benchmark for sales are often simply rejected by mainstream publishers, no matter what their literary or social merit may be, because they simply don’t offer adequate returns on the publisher’s investment.

The recent advances in self-publishing have changed all that. The proliferation of self-publishing and digital publishing, combined with Amazon and the major book-sellers’ online sales and distribution outlets, have largely removed the bottom line as a criteria in determining book production. At this point in history, for probably the first time ever, anybody who has about fifty dollars can produce and distribute a book for worldwide sale–or for an audience of one.

The upside to this is that now all those wonderful books for niche markets stand a chance of actually seeing the light of day. The downside is that it’s awfully easy to make a damfool of one’s self in print, and on a worldwide stage. It’s a scary thought. Self-publishing is great. I do it regularly. It offers me a way to maintain control of production and quality to a degree that authors who work with traditional publishers only dream of. Call me a control freak, but I like that.

But the decision to self-publish shouldn’t be make lightly. Before you select that pdf file and hit “send,” consider the following:

1. Are you considering self-publishing because you don’t think your book will appeal to a mainstream publisher? Why not? If you’re dealing with a limited subject with a limited audience, and you doubt that your book would pull enough market share to earn back a publisher’s substantial investment in getting your book from your manuscript onto the shelves in Borders, self-publishing might be right for you.

If you’re considering self-publishing because you think it’s an easy way out of doing all the editing a conventional publisher would require, maybe the question isn’t self-publishing or mainstream publishing, but whether you’re ready to publish at all. Though the requirements for self-publishing are different, and to a great degree driven by the author’s own standards, self-publishing is no substitute for good workmanship.

2. Have you done your homework? Most self-publishers offer a variety of packages. Each package includes a variety of services. The quality of those services can vary wildly from very good to very, very bad.

Take, for example, the matter of editing. Some self-publishing companies hire qualified editors, who do sterling work. Others seem to hire first-graders and provide them with a checklist of grammar rules. I’ve seen “corrections” that edited errors into the manuscript. And any attempt to clarify the finer points of grammar for the “editor” was met with mulish insistence on following the list.

If you’re doubtful about the quality of the services the self-publishing company offers, run far and run fast. If you must use them, consider hiring your own skilled editors and, if the self-publishing company allows it, designers. Some, like XLibris, require customers to choose from a limited palette of designs, and all design and editing must be done in-house. Others, like CreateSpace, provide templates, and allow customers to set up their own books, and use their own editors and designers.

Again, there’s an upside and a downside to this. For the writer who happens also to be a skilled typesetter such a system allows for far better quality control. For someone who is stumbling through the process, the system allows for those aforementioned unparalleled opportunities to embarrass one’s self.

Self-publishing can offer an amazing opportunity to produce the book you want, and get it to the audience you want to reach. But before you make your decision, ask yourself if you feel confident that you, experts to whom you have access, or the company you have chosen can reasonably be expected to produce a book of which you can be proud.

If you want to typeset your own book and design your own cover, take the time to educate yourself in some of the finer points of the tasks. Consider that there are people who actually go to school to learn how to do this. If you have doubts about your ability, check out some of the blogs on the blogroll; there are several run by excellent editors. There are some book designers here, too (stands up and waves hand).

3. Do you know how you will distribute your book? Most self-publishing companies offer to produce your book for you, and to offer it for sale–on their site, and perhaps on an affiliated site. Look for the ones that offer broader distribution. Some, like CreateSpace, will make your book available internationally through Amazon, if you wish, as well as through one of the major mainstream book distribution houses. What this means is that your book is available not only to people who know about and visit the self-publisher’s website, but to millions. A stranger across the nation can walk into a Barnes & Noble store and order my book–and get it. Make no mistake, one of the key factors in your book sales is the distribution system you choose.

5. Marketing. I’m planning a more detailed look at book marketing shortly, so I won’t go into great detail except to say that whether you publish with a mainstream publishing house or a self-publishing company, you should plan to market if you plan to sell books. Shrinking marketing dollars must be spent where they can be expected to earn the most return. If you’re a first-time writer, unless you have a dynamite book on a dynamite topic, this is quite likely not  your book. Publishers openly acknowledge that the books that sell the best are those in which the author is most actively engaged in promotions. There should be nobody who works harder than you do to make sure your book sells. That’s true across the board.

So–what about it? Are you ready to self-publish?

If you’d like to find out more about self-publishing through sites like CreateSpace (no, I’m not sleeping with anyone who works there, but I’ve tried several online publishers and I like their services the best) visit them online. If you’d like to see what I’ve done with within their very generous parameters visit my Amazon Author’s page. If you’d like a closer look at my work, email me for samples.

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