2.22.2012

My Biggest Advice for Indie Publishers?

Over the last 18 months or so, I've fielded a lot of questions from writers interested in joining the e-publishing orgy that's going on right now with Amazon, Smashwords, etc. These are people who have toiled for years trying to break into the traditional publishing market, and who have finally started to see the appeal of just getting their work out into the world and, possibly, making a couple bucks in the process.

They want to know how I've done it. What sites do I go to, how do I prep the manuscripts, how do I do my covers, etc. These conversations are usually kind of lengthy because, well, I want to share all the information I've learned as I've gone. There is a lot of ground to cover. I will be working on a FAQ for my site really soon that will cover a lot of that information and answer a lot of basic e-publishing questions for you, but it all comes down to the nugget of wisdom I'm about to share with you right now. And that is this:

Just do it.

I am no expert on this topic. Not even by a long shot. When you consider the statistic that says it takes about 10,000 hours of work before one reaches expert status on something, I'm not even an expert at the craft of writing itself. So with self-publishing, I'm still trolling around in (MAYBE) intermediate newb territory. I've learned everything I have so far by simply DOING. Sure, you will make mistakes that way, but  if you're crafty and diligent enough, you will learn from those mistakes.

This is truth.
Hell, I'm still making mistakes. Honestly, when I first started doing this, I was mostly acting on a lark. I wanted to see something with my name on it at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Really, ego was my only motivation. I didn't actually expect that thousands of total strangers would eventually find and read my stuff. As a consequence, my early manuscripts were not very clean. That was a big "my bad" on my part. Every indie writer blog you'll find online harps about the importance of having someone edit your stuff, and I agree with them, but I also know that editors are expensive (because I am one; however, this does not mean I'm qualified to edit my own work). So when you DO do it, make sure that you're prepared to greet a large audience, even though the likelihood is your audience won't show up for awhile. It's kind of like leaving the house with clean underwear on. Do it "just in case." If you can't afford an editor, have an intelligent person at least proofread it for you so you don't look like me, with dumb typos in your work that could have easily been avoided by having a fresh pair of eyes read your stuff. Me, I've since started using my husband, because he's amazing and he knows English real good. (see what I did there?)

Formatting was another learning process for me. My earliest books were spaced too wide, and their margins weren't great. I was about four ebooks in when I finally figured out how to properly format the Word document, and even now it isn't as perfect as I'd like, because I'm not a coder. However, I rest assured knowing that many ebooks from the Big 6 publishers look worse than my current titles up for sale. That's because there isn't a current industry standard on ebook formatting. Ebooks are just fugly right now, and there isn't a whole lot that can be done about it. So your book will be in good company that way.

But standards will come in time, so keep your eyes and ears open. Meanwhile, there is a great style guide at Smashwords that is free and is probably the best one you will find to date on how to format your document for epublishing.

My first cover. Yeah, I know. It sucks.
My early covers were also not great. I haven't had the time to change the old ones, but honestly, I haven't been criticized too much for them, and they're selling and reviewing well despite that, so the incentive isn't there to spend the time fixing my old covers. Besides, the books with the shittiest covers are free.

However, I've since learned a lot more about cover art from some artistic friends of mine, and I've also learned how to better use the program on which I create my cover art (GIMP). I didn't take classes, and I have ZERO visual arts background. I just kept using it and experimenting with it (youtube is a great teacher if you're looking to learn new techniques) in my spare time, and I feel comfortable with it. To the point where I feel like all of my covers have a similar aesthetic, and reflect what I want them to reflect. Are my covers as good as a professional graphic designer's covers? Oh gawd no. I look forward to the day when the commission I pay for professional cover art will be easily covered by my book sales. But I think they're definitely passable, and I'm enjoying learning the process. I now consider making a cover a form of relaxation.

One of my latest covers. Progress.
Pricing is another hurdle I'm still learning the ins and outs of. I used to think that pricing my books too low would signify that they weren't worth what I was asking for them. But I wasn't getting any readers at all that way, so I started experimenting with free titles. This earned me thousands of readers. However, over time, I think the good that comes from free titles eventually begins to wane. Things just got stagnant. So I've returned a couple of my titles to the $.99 price point. I've since had a sales bounce because of it. I've also played with pricing on my other titles. Will a $.99 novel sell better than a $2.99 novel? I'm in the process of figuring that out (still waiting on the sales figures), but you can't be afraid to play with your prices in order to find what works for you. I am a firm believer that there is no hard and fast rule on how to price your books. Free titles worked wonderfully for me in building an audience and getting reviews. Regularly cycling my prices has also done me a lot of good sales-wise. So right now, I'm getting the sense that you never want to keep things the same price for too long, whether you're charging three bucks or no bucks.

All this is to say, you just have to be willing to experiment and play around and find what works for you. If you're tenacious enough, you will find that putting together an ebook, learning to format a manuscript, designing a cover, and setting your prices becomes easier as you go along. And you have to allow yourself to make mistakes and learn from them. My sloppy ass early ebooks... I try to think of them as those ugly garage band b-sides that you listen to when a famous band was just forming and you go, "Wha? That's the same band? They sound like shit, but I can see their potential."

Hey, don't hate! These guys could be the next Nickelback! Er...
Maybe not all the readers will agree with that. Maybe they'll read that book and go, "Fuck, she's a slob. I'm not reading anything else of hers." And I guess that's life. I have to take those things in stride. I have to build off those past failures and not let a few bad comments slow me down (believe me, I get at least one or two bad reviews a week, and I'm regularly telling myself it's not a reason to quit...even if I wonder from time to time if I really have what it takes). I think if you're not regularly doubting yourself at least a little bit, you're probably worse than you think.

When it comes to the crazy world of epub, your hands will get dirty. You have to stop worrying and fretting over every potential misstep. You have to be ready to have your pride stepped on a few times (or even more than a few) and question your sanity from time to time. You have to be ready to sacrifice at least a modicum of control over your work to the big corporations who are helping you sell it. You have to be ready for some people think you're not "legitimate" because you're self-publishing and not with a "real" publisher. You have to be prepared for the reality that your sales, at least at first, will be terrible. And then they will become a little less terrible, but they will still, ultimately, not even be enough to fill your gas tank every month. But every day that someone buys one of your books, it's a brighter day than it was before, and it's an awesome feeling.

But most importantly, if you really want to publish your own work, you have to get out there and JUST DO IT.

(The check's in the mail, Nike).