Today , as part of my mini self-publishing fest, we are very lucky to have an exclusive post written by author and publisher Helen Hart. Take it away, Helen …
Helen Hart is a publisher, indie book reviewer, and author of 9 novels published internationally by Scholastic, Virgin Books, OUP and HarperCollins. She is a founding partner of SilverWood Books, a boutique publishing consultancy which offers a wide range of services to help writers get their work into print – from manuscript appraisals and proofreading, through to full self-publishing assistance. Each year she teaches a week-long course on publishing at Marlborough College Summer School.
Self-publishing is an exciting and dynamic movement which has gained incredible ground over the last couple of years. Writers have seen the opportunities for getting a traditional publishing deal shrink, but instead of quietly putting away their dreams they’ve picked themselves up, dusted themselves down, and gone about publishing themselves. After all, who needs a traditional publishing deal when you can use modern technology and readily-available social networking tools to reach out directly to readers and establish yourself as a professional author?
However, the huge democratization that’s been happening recently means that a lot of work is being published that may not be ready to be out there in public. Badly edited and poorly produced self-published books don’t sell well, and muddy the waters for serious writers who want to do a good job and offer their readers a book that’s every bit as good as one released by a traditional publishing house.
Self-publishing has a steep learning curve – so just how do you do it, and do it well?
10 Vital Steps for Self-Publishing Success
- Learn about the business of publishing: find out how mainstream publishers like Penguin and HarperCollins do things, and aim to be like them but better (more nimble, reactive to your readers, and innovative). Study the websites of successful publishers, large and small. Examine their patterns of releasing titles, the annual calendar, the sort of marketing that’s done. Above all go to bookshops and study the product. Cover, interior, blurb on the back. By self-publishing, you’re choosing to enter a very competitive and crowded marketplace, so make sure the book you produce can hold its head up high and compete on a level playing field with books from traditional publishing houses. (And even if your book is just for friends and family, it should look like a ‘real’ book, because things are in print for a long time, and if you’re leaving a legacy for future generations then you want to be proud of that.)
- Have your work professionally copy-edited and proofread: whatever your skills with English and grammar, always get a professional to edit or proofread your manuscript before you go to print. By all means self-edit and proofread until you’re happy with the current draft, but then get a professional. Make sure you find the right editor or proofreader for you – ideally an SfEP (Society for Editors & Proofreaders) associate or member. If you’re worried about budget, then see where you can make savings elsewhere, because this is one of the areas where you simply shouldn’t skimp. Again, it goes back to doing it like the mainstream… where everyone gets an editor, even William Boyd and Hilary Mantel.
- Understand the importance of good typography: it’s part Art and part Science. Find out which font, size, spacing, words-per-line-and lines-per-page facilitate easy reading. Best advice is to get a professional – their knowledge, experience and technical expertise may cost money but without it your book will look amateurish and that may put off the more discerning readers. If you’re planning to use an online DIY service you can use one of their templates, but be aware that the book is laid out in Word which is a fairly unsophisticated word processing package so there’s no real flexibility with line spacing and word spacing (and this can reduce how reader-friendly the subsequent book is).
- Understand the principles of good book jacket design: more Art/Science stuff. Again, get a professional. Your friend with a bit of knowledge about Photoshop may be a talented, but they probably aren’t up to the job of competing with the cover designers employed by traditional publishers. Again, if you’re going the DIY route, many online publishing services offer templates and some look pretty good, but they aren’t unique. Your book is going to look the same as all the other books produced by authors who choose that template.
- Find out about printing: research short run digital printing, Print On Demand (POD) and lithographic printing. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. POD has built-in distribution, but a higher unit price which will whittle away at your profits. Lithographic has a lower unit price but you’ll need to factor in storage and arrange distribution, both of which will also reduce your return. Do your research and decide which best suits your needs. Also, be realistic about the size of the print run you need.
- Choose the right materials for your print edition: again, these should match what traditional publishers are doing. Select a cream bookwove paper for the interior of your novel, and a laminate for the cover (matt laminate is currently fashionable and offers a classy finish, but it can mark easily). White paper is usually reserved for non-fiction, or books with lots of colour images (where a non-white paper could affect the colour of the image).
- Understand the business of selling books: find out about distribution, trade discounts and how to get your book get into readers’ hands. There’s a retail chain, and each part of that chain will expect a small ‘cut’ of the retail price of your book in exchange for facilitating your book from its point of origin to the reader. Expect to give away a minimum of 30% and more realistically up to 65% of RRP.
- Have a book promotion strategy: it’s not enough to simply put your book out there and hope for the best. No book sells itself (unless it’s been written by an author with a household name and every title from them is hotly anticipated). You’ll need to let readers know about your book. A good starting point is Debbie Young’s excellent Sell Your Books: A Book Promotion Handbook for the Indie or Self-Published Author, available in paperback and for Kindle. For more ideas, do a quick search online using search terms like ‘promote my self-published book’.
- Develop your author platform: give people a reason to read or recommend your book. An author platform is your own personal soapbox… what is it about you and your book that will interest people? How can you leverage that to get reviewers and journalists interested in the story behind the book? Be prepared for hard work and relentless self-promotion. It’s tiring and challenging, but can also be enormous fun and the chances are you’ll get great feedback from people who’ve read your book. But be in it for the long haul. Even a so-called ‘overnight success’ like Amanda Hocking is the result of many months or years of online promotion.
- Finally, as a self-publishing author remember that you’re running a business: keep all receipts and records and balance your expenditure against income. If there’s a profit, you should declare it on your tax return. And a last word of caution – don’t self publish just to make money. Any profit should be a bonus, and not the reason for doing it. Some writers do make money, sometimes enough to live on, but they’re relatively few and far between. Self-publish for other reasons – and there are many of those, not least the sense of personal achievement. There are few things that can beat the feeling of holding a copy of your book in your hands for the first time.
So there you have my 10 steps for self-publishing success. If this is your first foray into the self-publishing world there’s a lot to learn, so take your time because mistakes can be expensive to fix – financially and in terms of your professional reputation. Don’t be tempted to rush to get your writing published (unless there’s a genuine time-sensitivity to your project).
If the learning curve feels too steep for you, or your non-writing life is demanding and you simply don’t have the time to learn and project manage a successful self-publishing project, then you might consider working with a one-stop publishing services provider. There are a lot of companies out there offering help – some are excellent, but some are less than scrupulous and produce sub-standard books. Choose wisely. I hope you’ll research the best and will investigate what we have to offer at SilverWood Books. All our titles are produced to the highest industry standards, and we’re very engaged with our authors, supporting them through the entire publishing process. But we’re not the only company available – there are others and you should select the right fit for you and your project. Make sure they’re supportive, that they understand the publishing and bookselling business, and best of all that they have a good track record and are interested in the books they publish (and not in simply selling you services). Above, all, enjoy yourself – self-publishing should be fun!
Thanks Helen! I’m sure you’ll all agree that there is a lot there worth bookmarking – it’s great to have advice from someone deep inside the industry; Helen is easy to approach and incredibly generous with her time when it comes to helping indie authors. I’m sure she’d be happy to answer any questions right here on the blog, so fire away … What would you like to know that Helen hasn’t already covered?