To Self-Publish Or Not? One Author's Experiences Going the Self-Publishing Route
By Alyce Wilson
When I completed my latest book, The Art of Life, a collection of personal essays and columns, it didn't take me long to decide what route to take with publication. Since my collection comprised 13 years' worth of work that varied in tone and subject matter, I felt pursuing a traditional publisher would be pointless. Instead, I opted for self-publishing, putting the book out as a paperback through Amazon Createspace and as a Kindle book through Amazon'sKindle Direct Publishing.
As far as I was concerned, this decision would eliminate months or years of fruitless query letters and would allow me to spend my time more productively, promoting the book.
Of course, like any do-it-yourself project, self-publishing involves much more work than a traditional publisher would. I bore the responsibility for editing my book, formatting the final product, and creating a cover. After researching a number of self-publishing options, I chose Createspace because its per-copy costs for POD (print on demand) were the best bargain and because they offer immediate listing on Amazon.com, as well as an extended distribution plan, for an additional fee, making the book available to book stores and libraries.
The process of preparing the manuscript was a lengthy one. First, I went through all my old columns and blog entries, selecting ones that might work in the finished book. I cut-and-pasted them into a MS Word file, if I had electronic copies, or put them aside in a paper folder. Then I went through all the possibilities and whittled them down, keeping only the strongest pieces, which I felt could stand on their own. If I dealt with a topic more than one way, I tried to select the ones that were better written.
To put the collection into order, I paid close attention to how the pieces fit together, trying to vary the tone and subject matter. I alternated more serious pieces and lighter pieces, trying to achieve a feel of connection between each piece and the next. I used a series of columns I'd written about traveling to Colorado in the year 2000 as a framing device, beginning with the piece written on the bus on the way back, and then periodically interspersing the rest of the journey, starting at the beginning and ending in a bar in Colorado. These columns were a natural framing device, because they played on the idea of life as a journey.
After I had a working manuscript, I enlisted the help of my husband to get it formatted. We used styles in MS Word, which allowed us to make changes, if we saw fit, to subheads or body text by simply changing the style, rather than changing the entire manuscript. I made sure to use the margins recommended by Createspace, and I also consulted Walton Mendelson's "Build Your Book" ebook, a free resource on the basics of book design. This helped me figure out the front matter for the book, as well as the proper way of using page numbers. Mendelson's ebook also contains a section on Createspace, which provided valuable guidance into the exact specifications.
I ran a spell check and reread the book several times, correcting errors. If I'd had the money, I would have hired someone to proofread it, but that was simply not in my budget.
Finally, my husband created a PDF of the book which embedded the fonts. I had chosen not to use any internal images (which eliminated the need for print-quality photos or illustrations), but if I had used them, those would have needed to be embedded, as well.
I used the Cover Creator option at Createspace to design my cover. This consisted of selecting amongst a number of templates and then personalizing it. Some of the templates are very simple with standard, built-in images. Others allow users to upload images of their own. I chose a cover which allowed me to make my own photograph the background image, because I reasoned that would make it look very different from any other book cover created this way.
The book, once submitted through the Createspace review process, was available for proof within a few days, and I ordered a proof copy. I was pleased with the quality of the paper, the printing, and the glossy cover.
I rushed my first copies out by Philcon, where I would be a panelist, and after discovering more errors, made another editing pass and updated my manuscript. The process was easy (simply uploading the corrected document), although it meant the book was unavailable during the review period. Createspace reviews all manuscripts before publication, looking for copyright violations and formatting concerns.
Creating the Kindle version was trickier. While I had absolutely no trouble creating a Kindle version of my poetry book, Picturebook of the Martyrs (2004; reprinted in 2010), the process with The Art of Life was more involved. I had to create a .HTML version of the manuscript in order to create hyperlinks for the footnotes that appeared in a couple pieces. I also had to use hyperlinks to create a functional table of contents. In addition, I inserted page breaks by using a special code discovered on the Kindle Direct Publishing help boards (which I was unable to find on revisiting the site, since KDP has opted for a simpler help section; however, there's a lot of community help available if you do a search for specific topics). I used Dreamweaver for these and other formatting tasks.
I also utilized a program called Kindlegen, which produced MOBI versions of my HTML manuscript to allow me to check it more thoroughly than I could using the KDP preview option. When I was happy with the result (which took several iterations), I uploaded my HTML document to the KDP site, and within a short period of time, my Kindle book was available for sale.
Laborious as this task was, it was made more complicated by the demands of my son, who was about 6 months old at the time. Because I could only be productive for brief windows of time, formatting the Kindle version took me about two weeks.
If I had been less capable of handling the formatting of both versions of the book, I would have had to pay for professional assistance, yet another possible drawback for those considering self-publishing.
On the plus side, I got to determine the final look of my books, and I'm pleased they represent me in the way I intended.
Perhaps a bit naively, I thought that if The Art of Life was available in time for Christmas orders, all I needed to do was to announce it to friends and family, and word of mouth would translate into sales. However, the rush of Christmas orders didn't come, even when I offered a Black Friday discount.
As I've learned in the months since, promotion involves much more footwork. Now that the weather is finally warm enough for travel, I'm beginning to explore options for readings and signings. I participated in a giveaway promotion on Goodreads, which put my book in the hands of three readers but also introduced it to hundreds of others (including more than 90 who put it in their "to read" list). More recently, I've launched a "blog tour," where I am writing guest blog entries and participating in interviews on other people's blogs.
In addition, I'm looking for sites and publications that review self-published works (not as impossible as it might seem: my literary magazine, Wild Violet, reviews primarily self-published and independently published books).
If I wanted to, I suppose I could hire a PR firm or publicist, but again, that's money I don't have for an uncertain result.
Those with traditional publishers may do most of the footwork but also have the advantage of a trusted brand behind their book, which might give new readers more confidence in untested writers. In my case, I'm relying on sharing excerpts from my book on my blog or directing people to the free sample on Kindle.
While the number of units moved so far is small, I'm optimistic that will change. When it does, I stand to make more per copy than with a traditional publisher. Perhaps if I put in enough effort, the hard work will pay off and I can say with certainty that, for me, for this book, self-publishing was the right option.
A NOTE FROM THE HANDYMAN
Wanted to add my two bits to this, given I have had experience on both sides of the publishing docket.
I don’t generally endorse self-publishing for works of fiction, not because I am one of those who thinks less of an author for doing so, but because I understand the mechanics of putting together a book and I know that most individuals do not have the knowledge base to build a professional quality package, or recognized if the quality of work completed by a subsidy publisher is up to professional levels.
While in some instances it is acceptable, and even expected, to self-publish—such as cookbooks, comic books, gaming manuals, poetry, children’s books, and some non-fiction—that rarely applies to fiction. I mention this because if you wish to begin a career (or dedicated hobby) as a published fiction author, you could be hurting your future opportunities to start off this route because regardless of your personal skill or knowledge, industry professionals will make assumptions about your work because of the means by which you have published.
This is a word of caution, only; by all means, there are success stories that have found their roots in self-publishing, but they are the exception, not the rule.
Production knowledge aside, if you self-publish all of the behind-the-scenes publisher responsibilities either fall on your shoulders; or you pay for every task that needs doing; or they go undone. Whichever is the case, any profit you might realize on sales is counteracted by either expenses or time expenditure. Add to that the fact that the more time you spend on the business aspect of being a writer, the less time you have to actually write the next thing, and you may begin to see the reason for my words of caution.
If you are going to opt for a self-publishing opportunity, in lieu of the hard slog of submit-wait-submit again, do your homework. Learn exactly what steps need to be completed when, how they should be done, and what the end result should be, whether you are doing the steps yourself or paying someone else to do them. Don’t go into it expecting the subsidy publisher to by a helpful friend who will guide you through the process to create a perfect book. They make their money on quantity, not quality. Before you even hand in the print files research the company you are considering going with and what their terms and charges are, and don’t neglect to consider things such as marketing, distribution, and promotions. Those stages need to be begun well before you have a book in your hand, regardless of the method by which you are published.
Have you or someone you know had experience with self-publishing? Please do share a little of your story. What were the benefits and the unexpected pitfalls? What would you do differently? Please, let us know! The best way we can help one another is to share the lessons we’ve learned so those coming after can avoid the pitfalls we had to pass through.