A Tale of Self-Publishing – How authors slayed the dragon

Once upon a time, there was only traditional publishing and in traditional publishing there were gatekeepers. A gatekeeper’s job was to filter out the unedited, poorly written dreck that opened not with action, but backstory or prologues. Then their function changed from being mere gatekeepers to arbiters/purchasing agents and so the reading public was forced to read endless variations of Twilight with its moody, angst driven hero and wistful, victim heroine to 50 Shades of Grey, to use a few comparisons we hear from readers of the current cookie-cutter genre (which is a whole other readership in itself). But some were dissatisfied. Writers were becoming discouraged. This made a lot of people very angry and was widely viewed as a bad move. Justifiably so, since it kept a lot of good authors out of publishing.

And then, lo and behold, there was born a new industry (resurrected really – though in a new format) called Self-Publishing.

In the beginning, there was Smashwords, run by Mark Coker. He wanted to democratize publishing, and so there was and is no cost, no frills, it was (and still is) a quick way to get your e-book into production and distribution, and you could do it in a day. It deliberately allowed writers to appeal directly to readers without having to deal with gatekeepers such as agents and editors. In keeping with this mission, Smashwords applies no editorial screening. (This has turned out to be not necessarily a good move, either. More on that, later.)

Now authors who want to publish had a home.

The first to truly achieve success – by getting noticed – was Amanda Hocking. She virtually created YA – Young Adult, aka, what had once been known as ‘Coming of Age’, with a dystopian or paranormal twist. From that came NA – New Adult. Her sales took off and then a traditional publisher signed her.

(This doesn’t discount Chuck Wendig or JA Konrath or a handful of others, who were hybrid traditional/self-publishers and are now primarily self-publishers.)

Thus was created new venues – Amazon & Kindle, Barnes & Noble with the Nook (not managed very well), Apple & iBooks, Draft to Digital and Kobo.

Now, anyone who wanted to write a book could…and many did.

At first, a decent author with a decent cover could actually make money from their work.

And then, the hordes descended.

Like any other Indie/Self-publisher I hate the idea of gatekeepers, yet now there are none and, increasingly, it shows. And, weirdly, self-publishers have turned into their own worse enemies. Writers actually insist that they don’t need editors or cover artists. (Every author does.)

As the creator/admin/mod of the Indie Author Group, I constantly hear ‘woe is me, my sales are non-existent’, and variations therein.  And while I have sympathy, I can see why – sometimes when I look at their book, the cover is awful, the editing is worse, or the books they’re writing are in the most popular, most glutted genres. I can’t, however, say that to them or face the wrath of the angry author. Suggest they try a new or different take and all the mods have come to expect fireworks. Suggest that they don’t write to the tropes – the ‘romantic’ motorcycle alpha male, the hero’s journey/quest, the hard-boiled detective – and you’ll get, as I did, the one-book wonder or instant expert who will object. Strenuously.  Then, that one book insta-expert tries to hijack the group entirely and things get difficult for all of the team when all we want is to do what we love – write and support.

Yet, that’s how the most successful writers did it.

When Stephen King started writing horror, they said there was no market, but he practically reinvented it. J. K. Rowling created fantasy novels for middle-grade to YA. Hocking gave YA street cred. Wendig does mysteries and science fiction. As much as Twilight gets bashed – the author reinvented the vampire story with her angst-ridden characters. And E. L. James ponied onto the back of that, to write a Twilight fan-fic without the supernatural and with a twist, and brought erotic romance from a niche into the mainstream. Hugh Howey recreated dystopian fiction, sold the print rights but kept the e-books (at first), creating a new hybrid market while he was at it. And Andy Weir recreated accessible science fiction.

Hocking, James, Howey, and Weir all started as Indie writers. All signed contracts with Big Five publishers.

Okay, so that’s the good news, here’s the reality. The self-publishing industry has to change. You can change with it or be left behind.

Some venues are closing or have closed, others are teetering. Despite the Amazon bashing, with its international reach it’s still the publisher of choice for most Indie writers, and with all due apologies to Smashwords, Amazon does require some editorial screening (although it can’t do much about those grammatical errors and really bad covers). Bad spelling, editing, and cover art harm all of us. Few of the other vendors offer any marketing/support assistance, which makes publicizing books there difficult. But Amazon DOES take onboard specific reports – we’re seeing more and more of these books that people say ‘I’m not selling’ pop up with a yellow triangle under its name that says ‘issues found’, then details reports they’ve received, and lets folks know that the publisher has been informed. In other words, Amazon is pushing for a bit of crowdsourced control and DO check before they flag things. It’s a gatekeeper in the hands of readers, in other words.

You, the writer, have to decide whether you want to stay a midlist writer and disappear like so many others, or innovate, try new things and find your niche.

The four E’s of Indie publishing

IAG oneThere are four e’s to indie publishing – four elements that just can’t be skimped on, or you’ll destroy yourself.  That destruction will come from poor reviews, and your image, once damaged, is really difficult to repair.  Once you’re known as a writer that doesn’t care about his/her product, though you’ll still gain readers, there will eventually be a barrier to your evolution as a writer, or even your ability to reach the next level.

So what are the four E’s?

Excellent story, editing, expert support for covers and formatting, that extra special push.
Each of these, coupled with writing more books, will give you the solid foundations you need as an indie writer to create the career of your dreams.  Of course, those goals are yours to set.

Excellent story

It all starts there.  If you’re bored with your own book, it’s possible that your readers will be too.  But there’s a difference between ‘been looking at it for so long I’m bored with it’ and a boring book.  If you’re not caught up in the rush of the story though, look at why.  If it’s because you’ve been working with it for so long it’s making your eyes bleed, take a step back.  If the story is weak or lacklustre, look at it again.  Work on it.

There are elements to an excellent story, but the best guide is how you feel about it.  And how your beta readers feel about it.  If it gives you a rush, chances are it’s an excellent story.

Editing

I know a lot of people are going to be sceptical about this, as I’ve listed the next point as expert support, so, why have I split off editing from expert support.  The short answer is that of all of the support you can get for your book, editing should be started while you’re getting your cover reveal and researching formatters.  Covers and formatting are OF COURSE important, but editing needs to come first – it’s also a good priority to make because it gives you the time to get your cover done without it being rushed, and time to investigate your formatting needs, and find someone to work with.  It’s always important to remember that just because your book is written, it’s still got a way to go, and you need to incorporate that into your timeline.  Editing isn’t a rapid process, and it also gives you a bit of time away from your story.

Editing is important because it’s a new set of eyes on your book and a professional opinion on your book.  Of course, you don’t need to take all of their recommendations, but professional editing is a must for any published book.  And you should always self-edit first.

Expert support

Covers and formatting come next.  You can start your cover design while your book is out for editing, fo course, but your cover and your formatting is really getting you to the end of your professional polish and getting ready for your launch.
You should consider running a cover reveal or other launch for your fans – not only does it build your fan base, but will also get you the start of your launch.
Once edited, your book should be formatted.  At this point you can work with your formatter, find the last of the errors (if there are any) and deal with anything that you’ve found.  These professional touches, along with editing will place your book apart from those that don’t look for professional support.

That EXTRA special push

Most authors can’t market to save themselves, and find it very difficult to do so.  And while it’s pretty much essential now, there are ways around it.  You should launch your book, and you should capitalise on as much of the attention as you can, but longer term, you may want to either have a support structure and team to help you, or set aside time for marketing.  Marketing is important, though there’s a difference between spamming people and interacting with them.  Most marketers will work with you, not against you, and author services can range from posting to your social networks, to a full service website, much like our blog.  It does come down to what you can afford of course, but do consider that professional marketing help might actually make back the rate they charge over the course of the project,  and if they don’t, they WILL create more exposure for you in the short-term and you will make the money back eventually.

And then your book is out there, and you can start on the next book!

E-book formatting 101. When you’re new to this all.

Dear reader,

I don’t consider myself an expert on formatting e-books, yet so far I’ve done a reasonable job on my own. I’ll let you in on the trick to my “success”.

There are a few things to remember when you’re formatting an e-book:

1. It is not a paperback or a hard-cover.

Well, that’s an eye-opener. Still it is important to understand. An e-book doesn’t have pages. In fact, the inside of an e-book is basically one long, flowing page and the way it’s shown to the reader depends entirely on the software that is running on your e-reader or tablet, and in many cases it can even be influenced by the settings inside the software if you can get to those.

Since there are no pages, there is no reason to add page numbers. If you force them into your book, they’ll show up in the oddest places for everyone due to the nature of the beast. I mean e-book.

For that same reason it’s useless to add your name and the title of the book to the page header, as is done so often in paper books. There are no pages, so there are no headers.

2. Keep it simple.

Simple A: a mistake that many people make is to go overboard on font adornments. They will italicise, make text bold, underline and even combine the lot to make an impact. That is a nice idea, but the end result usually is a messy jumble. If you feel you need a font embellishment option, choose one and stick to that. Note that underlining often is a bad idea, because e-ink e-readers can follow links, and underline often indicates a link. Do you want to frustrate the readers of your book to tap a link in vain, be my guest, but be warned that you may annoy them.

Simple B: fonts. Use one font. A basic one like Times New Roman or Arial will do nicely. Many e-readers and tablets don’t display anything except their own built-in font, so adding all kinds of fonts you love and like will hardly have an effect.

Simple C: spacing. Don’t overdo it, but also don’t underdo it. If you switch a scene in your book, make sure you use something of a separator line in your text, like an asterisk (or a set of three), or a few dashes. Some e-readers will skip blank lines and keep the text going, so that can give you very strange results. A reader needs some indication that the story continues in a different place/from a different viewpoint, so make sure there is something.

Simple D: no tabs, no spaces. Most e-book formats on the inside are HTML- or web-pages. Webpages don’t support tabs, and also most of the time (but not always) multiple spaces will be shown as just 1 space, and spaces usually are entirely omitted when they appear at the start of a sentence. If you want the first word of a new paragraph to be indented, set the horizontal space of your default style in your word processor to what you need.

3. Images.

If you can avoid using images, avoid using images. If you’re creating a picture book you should reconsider your medium.

Images can add to a story when used wisely. Not too big, not too small. However: when is an image the right size? Remember, e-reading can be done on a 3.7″ smartphone as well as a 12″ tablet. Images usually don’t scale to the reader, so be smart about this. If possible, avoid them.

And the remark about picture books and the right medium: if you have beautiful, coloured pictures in your work and someone looks at them on a black-and-white e-ink reader… not much of your vibrant colours will survive.

 4. Be consistent

If you’re writing a series of books, be consistent in your formatting. Don’t change the font, styles or spacing with every new book just because you think it’s worth a try. Change one, then change them all. Give your reader the feeling they’re indeed reading a book from the same series.

5. Get the Smashwords Style Guide

Download the Smashwords Style Guide (link leads you to the download page in a new window.) Some people I know have complained that this book is hard to follow. Many thousands however haven’t. If you have a problem with it, then ask others what to make of it. This book has helped me tremendously, I follow it with every book I publish. I have created a template for my word processor based on this book and let me brag that it doesn’t fail. Get the book and use it. The price won’t kill you because it costs nothing except a click and the download time. It’s worth it.

And before you start shouting that you will only publish through Amazon: get the guide. I have once published a book through Amazon first and used that document for Smashwords. Smashwords rejected the file as it contained errors. Then I discovered that the e-book generated by Amazon had those errors as well and it looked awful. My rule of thumb is: if Smashwords’ Autovetter (their conversion system) says it’s good, it’s good.

Happy formatting!

The Only Constant is Change

All of the Harry Potter books written by J. K....

J. K. Rowling has been taking a few hits lately in social media – first because she (or her publisher) decided to change the covers of the Harry Potter books and second because of her decision to publish her mystery novel under a different name.

Changes though, are sometimes necessary. Take that mystery for example. How many people might have mistakenly purchased it and given that book to their children under the notion that Rowling only writes children’s books. How many, having read the Harry Potter books, would have passed it up as “written by that children’s author” as they did with that last novel she wrote? She still has stories to tell, and not all are Harry Potter, how would she get past that bias to write a different kind of book? So, she wrote under a different name, and proved she could write mysteries well.

And then there’s those covers. Personally, I’m not surprised. How long have those books been out? So they wanted to put a fresh face on them.

So what’s the point of all this?

I listen – sometimes daily – to a lot of Indie writers complain about their book sales and/or lack thereof, and I wish they’d do something first… take a good hard look at their books.

First, look at the cover. I see quite a few really awful covers out there. Really awful. No matter how gifted an artist you/your wife/daughter/son/whatever is, unless they have a degree in graphic design, it will look like crap. There are some great pre-made covers out there that are fairly inexpensive. Or you can hire someone.

Are your sales okay, but not great? Maybe your cover isn’t working for you. Try another

Are your sales dropping? Even if your book has a professionally done cover, like J. K. Rowling you’re not off the hook. You need to drawn attention to that book again. Everyone has seen that cover. If they were interested in it once, and wanted to buy it, they may just bypass it again because its familiar, it’s been there for a while, and there are new books out there to try. Maybe they’ll come back and try yours later, they think. You need to catch their attention, help them remember what appealed to them.

That would be your blurb – the book description – and maybe the ‘Look inside the Book’ feature.

So, take a look at your blurb. A blurb should entice, should draw the reader in with just enough information to make them want to read more. The shorter the book, the shorter the blurb – few sentences to a paragraph – the longer the book, the longer the blurb – but no more than two or three short paragraphs. *sticking fingers in ears to block out the screams of “How do I condense my story that small?!”  Write it, hone it, take out unnecessary words, and don’t tell the whole story in the blurb. Don’t give spoilers.

As far as the “Look inside the book” feature…I’m not going to go into the value of an editor, however I will say that readers are forgiving, but not that forgiving. More than one error in those first few pages are a fast way to turn a reader off.

So, don’t be afraid to embrace change. Corporations change advertizing all the time. They try something and if it doesn’t work, they try something else. So should you. Change is not your enemy and can sometimes be your friend.

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How many, how often?

Writer Wordart

Writer Wordart (Photo credit: MarkGregory007)

“How many books should I write, how often should I release them?” That’s a question I hear a lot as an administrator to a writer’s page, next to, ‘How do I become a rich and famous Indie writer.’ Or any kind of writer.

There is no simple answer, but I’ll do the best I can.

I once read that you should have at least three books written before you submit to a traditional publisher – and I think that still holds true for traditionally published and indie writers.  There were several reasons for that maxim. One of the primary ones is that very few writers become rich and famous with one book – barring a few notable exceptions. Another is simpler – both publishers and readers want to know that if they fall in love with your writing, there will be more of your books to read.

The new question is – How often?

That used to be dictated by the traditional publishers. Those publishers had thousands of books to release over a given year, and they didn’t want to saturate the market with a particular writer. If the author’s first book showed legs, they were more likely to produce and promote book two, if there was one. Knowing a writer had more books in their back pocket helped.

There was also a life cycle for traditionally published books – print for six months or so, paperback, then the new release a few months to six months after that. Especially for Christmas and pre-summer releases. Like motion pictures, publishers wanted to get the most bang for their buck. How many of you have waited impatiently for the next new book in a series? Only to find out the release date is six months out, so you pre-order it? (Giving the traditional publisher a pretty good idea of what their print run should be.) And then went searching for a similar writer to get your reading fix?

That, by the way, guaranteed them an income from that writer for at least a year or year and a half. With a second book, two years. Because another maxim was also true – book one sold book two, book two sold more of book one, and a third book would sell more of both of the others. (Otherwise known as the now-nearly-defunct back list.)

Fortunately or unfortunately, Indie writers don’t have the luxury of a large marketing department and a given reader base, so we have to create a new paradigm for ourselves. But that last maxim still holds true for us. Book one sells book two, etc. How many people have seen writers hawking the same book endlessly – to the point that you’re tired of seeing it? How many of you are inclined to buy said book, knowing that there isn’t another (or they’d have mentioned that book two is ‘coming soon’?) At a guess, not many.

And that maxim of putting books out regularly has been proven. From Amanda Hocking to Hugh Howey to Jasinda Wilder, all have proven that getting new books out regularly has made them successful. Hocking built a  reader base that helped push her books along, Hugh Howey released the Wool as a serial, and Wilder put out  (with her husband) about a book a month until she hit the right chord.

Do you want to be a successful well-known writer like Jasinda Wilder or Hugh Howey or Amanda Hocking? Then you have to get your name out, you have to keep it in the eyes of readers. Marketing alone won’t do that. Write a compelling book, get it edited, and while it’s being edited, write another. Get a decent cover artist. Release that first book while the second is being edited, then write the third. In the meantime, talk to people, do interviews, join FB groups. Talk about your works in progress so readers know there are more coming.

More than anything though, write what you’re compelled to write. Only Jasinda Wilder – that I know of -deliberately chose to write a certain genre. Then she and her husband got every romance/erotic romance they could find and read them – the ones that worked and the ones that didn’t. (Proof that reading your genre helps find your market.) She didn’t really hit it big – although they were making money, until she wrote Falling into You – a story of heartache, loss and healing that appeals to women readers. First, though, she built her name.

There is no easy way, but the easier way is to write, and write a lot. Put out new well-written, well-edited, books as quickly as you can. Indie writers have the ability to set their own time frame, and it doesn’t have to be tied to the traditional release cycle.

Wilder did about a book a month. A writer friend of mine does three different series and puts out three books a month – one in each. Her small publisher assigned her an editor of her own. She’s hit the USA Today bestseller lists. Yes, those two examples are romances or erotica – sex does sell. But Hugh Howey does post apocalyptic fantasy/sci-fi. Most indie writers do genre writing. Find your niche, fill it, and write. After all, isn’t that what writers do?

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Kindle freebies – is it like the library?

Stack of books in Gould's Book Arcade, Newtown…

Stack of books in Gould's Book Arcade, Newtown, New South Wales (NSW), Australia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the major issues in the kindle community right now is the fact that if you take part in the Kindle Select project, you can give away your book for up to five days in every opt in period of 90 days.
While extolling or decrying the virtues of this, though, people are talking about it like it’s an entirely new thing.
Except it’s not. Bear with me a second

They’re called L-I-B-R-A-R-I-E-S

One of the things that people seem to be entirely overlooking is the fan factor that libraries create. Not sure if you’re going to like the author you’re being raved at about? Money too tight for books (it sucks, but it happens!) – head on over to the Library, and see if they’ve got the book.
Like it? you’ll probably buy one of them at some point. Indifferent – for now? you might read another. Totally don’t care? You’ve wasted nothing but a little bit of your time.

So, are free download books, as part of KDPS or other freebie projects the same?

The problem with freebies is that if you’re not careful, that’s the only time you’ll shift your books. One horrible realisation hit me recently, when a friend said ‘oh I don’t buy indie books, I just wait for the author to use their five days. It’s not as if I’m exactly hurting for something to read, now is it?’ She even continued that ‘I won’t even buy yours, hon. I know you’re a good writer, but if [email protected] going to spend money on an e-reader, I don’t want to spend, even a couple of dollars on a book till I’m sure i’ll love it. And I don’t know till I’ve got the freebie, now do I?’

Other readers view it much the same way – while some authors are quite similar – they’ll only buy books from people who are ‘verified buyers’ of theirs – whether their book is several times the cost of the other author’s book or not. On a private chat, I saw someone saying ‘well yes, you buy my book for $10, and of course, I’ll buy yours, as long as it’s no more than $3.”

On the other hand, there are some really touching stories – indies that will only buy from other indies – indies that would rather spend their book budget (which can be small or quite large) on other writers and reviewers that only work with indie books. But the idea that we give to get is proving to be difficult for some – especially when one person sees another outperforming them on the same free days. It’s also proving to be quite frustrating for those that just can’t get traction.

The imbalance is startling though, because while it’s true that people do this sort of thing, going ‘free’ is the single easiest way to get fans. If you can afford it. For some indies, they just can’t. And eventually, as a tactic, it’s not going to work. There are thousands of free books, every day. Without standing out on places like Pixel of Ink and other sites, you may find it very difficult to leverage that.

Whether the bump in stats is worth it also remains to be seen. There are no side by side studies of two books, by two authors – one running the same amount of promotion with their free book, one running it without putting their book free. With all the variables, studies like that might be nigh on impossible to work through, even on an anecdotal level.

So, it is a bit like the library – with one crucial difference – the readers don’t have to return your books, and there is no queue to get it.

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