Self-publishing – a contrarian view

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Silk’s Post #101 — In his last post, 5writer Joe shared some valuable advice from experts in self-publishing, compiled by Betty Kelly Sargent, founder of BookWorks, in a Publishers Weekly article. It all sounds eminently sensible and business like. Calm. Reasoned. Soothing, almost.

Oh, except for the number bomb dropped into the introduction, which activated my morbid fascination with “arithmetic for writers”. Sargent did some Googling, and found 54,400,000 results when she searched “self-publishing an e-book”. Although I’m grateful to her for reducing this Niagara Falls of advice to a mini-fount of wisdom, there’s nothing calming about the depth and breadth of self-publishing chatter out there. It’s terrifying.

If you immerse yourself in this conversation, it’s easy to see exclamation points (my favourite abandoned punctuation mark!) where none need exist: You must know this! You better not do that! Hurry up! Slow down! Self-publishing is a dead end! Self-publishing is the future! Don’t even think about self-publishing without reading (listening to, attending, buying) this important book (article, conference, workshop, guide)! Sargent opens her Publishers Weekly piece on this cautionary note: “It can be a jungle out there for self-publishers.”

No kidding.

The only possible responses are: a) to face one’s fears and put it into perspective, or b) to curl up in a ball and whimper like a baby. So let’s break it down.

First: How did this daunting body of knowledge and advice about self-publishing and e-books get so big, so fast?

My theory: this is a whole new business model for a centuries-old industry. A revolution. And in a revolution, chaos tends to reign. Lots of people are running around the public square and up blind alleys, trying to figure out where to go, what to do, who all the other people are, and whether one should follow them or run away from them. Everything is, to at least some degree, experimental. Everyone is coming up with their own thoughts and theories and recipes for success, from authors who want to be published, to publishing industry folks who want to keep (or get) a paying gig in this brave new world. Everyone’s trying to read the bones and get a lock on the future, but it’s a complex and fluid situation. There’s a lot of re-invention going on here, a lot of pathfinding.

And since we’re all writers, we are, of course, writing about it. Endlessly.

Not only that, but – as you no doubt have noticed – the Internet is a gigantic echo chamber. Of those 54,400,000 hits on the “self-publishing an e-book” search, what percentage of them are truly original and substantive? How much of all this verbiage is derivative, recycled or simply repeated in an endless game of “telephone”?

Okay, whew. That cuts it down to size neatly. I feel better already.

Second: How – and when – does a potential indie author need to learn about self-publishing to be successful?

Writing a novel and publishing a novel are two completely different enterprises (whether as an e-book, or in print, with or without a traditional publisher). That may seem self-evident, but it’s worth thinking about the implications at a personal level.

These two processes do not use the same brain cells, or at least they don’t use them in the same way. They’re entirely separate challenges, and require different skill sets, knowledge, methodologies and mindsets. For me, and probably for many novelists, the writing part is what I love and the business side is something of a necessary evil.

I’ve been here before in another life.

When I started my graphic design business many years ago as a freelancer working from a tiny home office, it was my love of design and copywriting that drove me to take the plunge. I had just lost my job as a designer in a small studio, which was the psychological equivalent of about 100 rejection letters. Yeah, okay, I was fired. For being too “headstrong”. I had no formal training and little experience and – like an unpublished novelist who believes in her own talent even when no one else is willing to take a chance on her – I knew if I wanted to get into the field, I was going to have to create the opportunity myself.

Not only was I a novice designer, I knew virtually nothing about running a business. I just jumped in with both feet, blissfully ignorant but confident that I’d figure it out.

Fortunately, I did.

Every day I learned what I needed to know. It was pure, hands-on, real-world, just-in-time training, and a ridiculous amount of hard work. My modus operandi was to make it up as I went along. That meant being constantly on the alert for opportunities and pitfalls, and learning from my mistakes (of omission as well as commission). Since I wasn’t part of the “establishment” I had to be inventive – and build a great team of collaborators – to survive.

The good news was that we not only survived, we thrived. The venture turned into a 35-year career, a sometimes crazy roller-coaster ride, and a successful, award-winning agency in an industry not known for longevity. Still, I always viewed the business side of it as the price I had to pay to get the chance to do the creative work.

(Eventually, I became the “establishment”, which, ironically perhaps, took a lot of the fun out of it for me.)

This experience taught me that you don’t need to know everything at the beginning of a venture that you’ll eventually have to know in order to make it successful. In fact, I believe that you can only learn things when you’re ready for them. And what makes you “ready” is usually the necessity to act – the point in your journey when you simply have to move forward or fall back.

It also taught me that when you do get to that tipping point, you need to get out of your comfort zone, do your homework, figure out a plan (even if you change it later), rev yourself up for hard work and commitment, and forge ahead without fear. Mindset is everything. Even if you fail to reach the goal you hoped for, you won’t fail to learn – and that new expertise will propel you to a new goal.

This is the nature of risk-taking, and business is all about risk. For that matter, so is writing. Sometimes we have to take a leap of faith.

Third: Who do you listen to when you need to figure out how to navigate the swirling waters of this emerging self-publishing industry?

Clearly, there is no shortage of advice. While some of it may be conflicting, and trends and opportunities are continually shifting, it just can’t be that hard to find some models of success to emulate. Find them, study them, then tune them to fit your own circumstances.

Because the short answer to this question is that, in the end, you have to listen to yourself.

Yes, you. The novice. The “non-establishment” (and likely unpublished) writer. Because you’re the person who’s going to have to do all the work, make and learn from your mistakes, and think on your feet.

The advice Sargent curated in her Publishers Weekly article – based on industry experts’ “single, most important piece of advice” to aspiring authors – focused on the themes of “knowing what your want” and “being patient”. We’re told to:

  • Take enough time to produce a product that’s worth our readers’ time and money.
  • Know our goals and be absolutely clear about what they are and how we plan to achieve them.
  • Be patient and not worry about how the work sells out of the gate.
  • Make our books as widely available as possible in the networked world.
  • Avoid premature distribution by starting small, publishing beta versions and growing our “author platform”.
  • Write every day and hire an editor.
  • Treat self-publishing as a business, including doing competitive research and having a business plan and marketing plan in place.

All good advice. But it doesn’t really get us there, does it?

And that’s the problem with everything I’ve read to date on self-publishing. It tends to be either at the level of platitudes, or at the level of step-by-step prescriptions. Yes, I think it’s critical to take all this on board, but knowing stuff isn’t the same as doing stuff.

If Sargent had asked me her question – “If you could give someone starting out in self-publishing only one piece of advice, what would it be?” (and there’s no reason anyone would really want to ask me, a total novice, so consider the source) – I would have had a contrarian answer:

Before you consider self-publishing, look into your own heart and ask yourself whether you’re willing to do what’s necessary to take on a completely new business enterprise without knowing everything you need to know at the outset, or being guaranteed of a formula for success. Whatever other advice you follow, it won’t magically get you there.

Only you can get yourself there, under your own power.

You are a writer. You know how to research. You plan your books (maybe by outlining or maybe organically). You invent stories. You innovate. You improvise. Are you prepared to embark on the journey of adapting these skills to a business venture – as opposed to an artistic one?

I do believe self-publishing is a do-it-yourself extension to the modern writer’s journey. But make no mistake, it requires one to become an entrepreneur – with all the challenges (and rewards) that entails. In many ways, self-publishing should be treated as a kind of small business start-up. I believe that it’s impossible for those who’ve never been down this road before to know whether they’ll really take to it – or not – until they try it.

But look at it this way: you have nothing to lose but your literary anonymity!

 

Advice on self-publishing

PUBLISHER_WEEKLY_HEADERHere’s another article on self-publishing from the heavy hitters at Publishers Weekly.

It can be a jungle out there for self-publishers. Just try Googling “publishing an e-book,” and you get a staggering 54,400,000 results. If you search “self-publishing an e-book” you come up with 2,510,000 results and if you ask for “self-publishing advice” you will be directed to a sweet 3,070,000 offerings.

We decided to simplify matters by going to some of the leaders in the self-publishing world and asking them one simple question: If you could give someone starting out in self-publishing only one piece of advice, what would it be? As it turns out, the key is to know what you want, and to be patient.

Jane Friedman, professor, speaker, blogger, and publisher of Scratch magazine had this to say:

“The most important advice I can offer is don’t rush. Many first-time authors make a lot of mistakes along the way — some of which are inevitable — but I find that some authors don’t even have a clear idea of what their goals are. I tell authors: Before you do it, take time to understand why you’re doing it, to research your opinions, and to hire experts if needed to help you achieve your goals. Take enough time to produce a product that’s worth your reader’s time and money.”

When we asked writer, blogger, and consultant Joel Friedlander what advice he has to offer, he said:

“Know your goals. Be absolutely clear about what those goals are and how you plan to achieve them. Self-publishers need to understand why they are writing this book, who it is for, how they will reach those people, who they will have to hire to help, what their budget is, and what they want to get out of all this. So many times I’ve seen authors spend thousand of dollars unnecessarily and run into dead-end after dead-end because they simply didn’t have a clear set of goals in mind when they started out.”

Hugh Howey, celebrated author of the Wool and Silo series and self-publishing expert, offered this advice:

“My one piece of advice would be patience, both in publishing and in expectations of sales. Make sure your work is as amazing as you can make it before putting it out there, and once you do publish, don’t worry about how the work sells out of the gate. Books are now available forever. Start writing that next book. Don’t be in a hurry.”

For Ron Martinez, founder of the direct retail and social media marketing service Aerbook, the author/reader relationship should take center stage. He said:

“Remember that the most important relationship in the book business is the one between author and reader. Make your books as widely available as possible in our increasingly networked world. There has never been a better time for books to find their readers.”

Carla King, blogger, writer, adventurer, and self-publishing guru, had this advice for people new to self-publishing:

“Premature distribution is one of the most embarrassing mistakes made by self-published authors. Avoid it by starting small, publishing beta versions of your book, and growing your author platform as you perfect it. You don’t want to publish and then discover copy-editing errors, realize you should have invested in a better cover design, or wish you’d spent more time on marketing copy, metadata, and back of book information. So upload your book in places that allow you to publish, sell, remove, revise, and republish in just minutes.”

Cindy Ratzlaff, social media strategist and brand evangelist, said: “My first piece of advice would be to write every day. But my second piece of advice would be to hire an editor. Even the best writer needs the trained eye of a professional editor.”

And finally, author-marketing expert Penny Sansevieri put it this way:

“Self-publishing should be treated as a business. You would never open up a brick and mortar store without doing some competitive research and having a business plan and a marketing plan in place. Yet it amazes me how many times authors launch a book with no idea of the market or how they plan to get it out there.”

So there you have it. According to these experts, self-publishers need to be patient; know their goals; make their books the best they can be; network to find readers; avoid premature distribution; write everyday and hire an editor; and research your competition. Sage advice, indeed, and it sure beats sifting through the 3,070,000 suggestions offered by Google.

Betty Kelly Sargent is the founder and CEO of BookWorks.

*****

Personally, I think there’s nothing worse than premature distribution, but some interesting advice there from more people who’ve been there and done that.