Things to Know About Becoming a Self-Published Author
So you’ve written the next literary classic, that you know will garner millions of adoring fans across the globe, and you’re just one step away from telling your boss off and living the dream of becoming a professional writer. So what happens now? How do you go about sharing your masterpiece with the legions of potentially adoring fans? The following are a few things one should know about becoming a published author. Most of these are lessons I had to learn the hard way.
- Finish what you bloody start!
There’s no sense reading any further, if you’re simply going to give up on completing your first literary work. I never realized how many people were aspiring writers, until well after I became a full-time author. It seriously feels like everyone has a story to tell, which in many ways is true. The harsh reality, though, is that very few, perhaps 5%, will ever see their ideas through to fruition. So just like one cannot make it to the NFL without playing a game or two, one cannot become an author if they don’t finish what they start.
- Get an editor
Easily the most common mistake in the self-publishing world, and one that gives it a nasty black eye, is the lack of editing in so many works. I’ll just raise my hand now and say, “Guilty!” I confess that this was by far the harshest lesson I had to learn. Nothing can ruin a good story for a reader quicker than seeing ‘whine’ instead of ‘wine’, ‘throws’ instead of ‘throes’, or the notorious ‘too’, ‘to’, or ‘two’ cockups that we see every day in text, email, or Facebook posts. And these are just some of the errors that have plagued my own books over the years!
Reality is, we simply cannot proof-read our own works. Our brain knows what it is supposed to say, but that may not be what is actually on paper. I mean, I knew that I meant to say ‘wine’, as in the grape vintage, yet that bloody ‘h’ somehow snuck its way in there. And now I had a legionary pouring himself a cup of ‘whine’. Bottom line, hire someone to proof-read your book, and I don’t mean asking your younger sibling that’s still in high school, or your best friend. Hire a complete stranger, preferably someone with a literary background and education. Professional editors do not come cheap, as it is extremely tedious work. Hence why one should not ask their best friend, even if they have a master’s degree in literature, unless you’re willing to compensate them for it.
Also, friends and family are far less likely to offer honest criticism, and will instead tell you what they think you want to hear, rather than what you need to hear. A professional, especially one who’s a complete stranger, won’t care about your personal feelings. It is far better that they tell you if something is bollocks, rather than finding out the hard way via reviews on Amazon, after publishing (and those reviews don’t go away).
- Don’t skimp on the cover art
We all know the expression, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’. Reality check, that is exactly what readers do when shopping for a book. Every last one of us is guilty, let’s not pretend otherwise. And with online book sales engulfing such a massive share of the market, having a cover that is eye-catching, even in thumbnail size, is crucial. And as with editing, there will likely be some upfront costs involved. I know, it sucks having to front costs, but that is the reality of going self-published. One good way of finding images is through stock art sites, such as shutterstock.com. You will also likely need someone who is an expert with Photoshop, that can build your cover for you. Just remember to find something that is eye-catching, relevant to your topic, and don’t be afraid of paying a little extra if it means getting a better quality book cover.
- Publishing is easier than ever
This is definitely a double-edged sword. It used to be, the only way to see one’s books in print was to find an agent, and have them sell your works to all the big publishing houses. Nowadays, anyone with a computer can literally publish anything (and yes, this is an appropriate use of the word ‘literally’). And let’s not kid ourselves, since anyone can upload any word document and sell it on Amazon as a book, the quality control filter in the literary industry has been tossed into the dumpster. If we’re being brutally honest, a lot of what gets self-published these days is crap…okay, to be fair, there is a lot of mainstream literature that is a cesspit of verbal diarrhoea; however, those works are usually berated because of the content of their stories, not because it was unedited and poorly formatted. In turn, the glut of self-published works means that readers have a lot more to sift through. And of course, this makes it a lot more difficult to get noticed, especially if your particular genre is already inundated with a plethora of content.
That being said, the positive side of the ease of publishing is that the playing field has been levelled in many ways. Mind you, the big publishing houses will always have an advantage, since they are already established and have the budgets for expensive marketing and advertising campaigns. However, no longer can they tell you that your book is no good, or that there is simply no market for that. I remember back when I tried pitching my first book about the Roman legions to literary agents. No one said they didn’t like the story, but several said there was no market for it. Odd, because this was just a couple of years after that little Russell Crowe film, Gladiator, came out.
If you’ve tried the ‘traditional’ route of finding an agent and selling your work to the big houses, only to get the proverbial door in the face, you now have options. eBooks are now bigger than ever, with Amazon Kindle still holding the lion’s share of the market. By logging into kdp.amazon.com (nice thing is, you can just use your regular Amazon ID and Password), you can upload your manuscript and cover art, and they will convert it and publish it onto Kindle. The same can be done with other eBook readers, Barnes and Noble Nook at nookpress.com, and Kobo eReaders at writinglife.kobobooks.com. Both Amazon CreateSpace and Barnes and Noble Press offer options for getting your books into paperback.
- Have realistic expectations
Alright, so you’ve had your book thoroughly edited, it has an epic cover art, and you’ve published it into print, while uploading it onto every type of eReader on the planet…and now the wait begins. You wait, and wait, and wait some more. Why isn’t your book flying off the shelves and flooding everyone’s Kindle apps? Now comes the harshest reality of all within the publishing world.
Approximately half of all self-published books never even sell a single copy, outside of immediate family and friends. It is a hard thing to acknowledge, because like any artist who is passionate about their work, authors take a lot of pride in what we have written. But if one is to keep their sanity, any newly published author must acknowledge that their chances of making this into a career are remote. If we look at it by the numbers, ninety-eight percent of all published authors also have to work a day job. For those of us who are part of that very fortunate two percent, there is also the misnomer that we’re all millionaires, and nothing could be further from the truth. While I am popular within my particular genre, and have written five ancient history best-sellers on Amazon and Amazon U.K., that does not mean I’m driving my Tesla Roadster to the pier to throw a party on my yacht.
And while I am among those extremely lucky few, who are able to make a living as an author, it did not happen overnight. So do not distress if your book does not catch on right away. I wrote because I enjoyed telling stories, and it was more for myself, rather than because I thought I could make money at it. My first book came out in 2006, and it was not until five years and four more books later that I started making any real money. Even then, I did not leave my day job until I knew I would be able to live on my book royalties (the idea of becoming the proverbial ‘starving artist’ did not sit well with me).
So keep that in mind, and remember why you write in the first place.
- No thin skins
Alright, so now you’ve done all the right things, you’ve published your first book, and hey, readers are actually showing interest! You’re seeing sales on both eBook and print, and a few reviews are starting to pop up. But what’s this? Right below a glowing five-star review, is someone who gave it only one-start, and then subsequently complained, because there isn’t a ‘zero-star’ option!
Like any artist who puts their work on public display, authors are going to have their fans, as well as their detractors. I mean let’s face it, even Harry Potter has its share of one-star reviews. And as strange as this may sound, as one gets more reviews, it is important to have those one and two-stars occasionally, as it actually adds validity to one’s work. Think about it, you find a random book on Amazon (or wherever it is you shop online), it has fifteen reviews, and every last one of them is five-stars. Because people are by nature suspicious, the initial is not, ‘Hey, this must be a great book!’, but rather, ‘Hmm, this person is clearly padding their reviews with friends and family.’
And no matter how good one’s story may be, not every book will please every reader. And if you have a small handful of poor reviews, that tells other potential readers that at least people are picking up your books and reading them. As long as most of your reviews are positive, the random browser will see the poor ones and dismiss it as, ‘Well, it’s not for everyone’. I know, it sucks seeing those one-stars messing up your ratings average. I still have to remind myself not to be thin-skinned about it, to realize that my works are not for everyone, and hey, some reviewers are just assholes!
- Deadlines exist even for the self-published
You’ve written your first work, and it’s been relatively successful. In fact, you’re starting to gather a following of readers, who are now asking when your next book is coming out. Wait…what? I’m supposed to do this again??
Even if you’re not yet to the point where you can make a living as an author, but especially if you are, one then has to continue to feed the proverbial beast. No book remains on the New York Times list forever, and all sales eventually slow down to a trickle. And once your audience has found you, you do not want to lose them. Of course, books take time to write, edit, and publish. However, if it’s four or five years since your last work came out, then you are most likely going to have to rebuild your fan base from scratch. Even George R.R. Martin’s most avid fans are frustrated with how long it takes him to put each book out, and one has wonder just how well he would be doing, had HBO not decided to make his books into the hugely popular series, Game of Thrones. And let’s face it, you and I are not George R.R. Martin, with an HBO series, and so we have even less leeway with our fans, when it comes to keeping them satisfied.
Personally, I constantly worry that if I do not put out at least two books per year, I may lose my fan-base and have to start over again. I became popular within the ancient history genre at a time when there were so few of us covering it. In recent years, the numbers of historical novelists, focusing on Ancient Rome, has at least tripled. And though I may have established a name within the genre, and can reasonably expect that any new works will do well, the longer I delay, the more likely that I will get buried within the overabundance of newer authors.
So yes, while I many not have a publishing house demanding I produce a new work by a given date, the fans and readers (i.e. the very people who pay my mortgage) have their own deadlines, where if their favourite authors don’t produce, they will simply move on.
Summary: Don’t Panic!
Okay, so I’ve thrown a lot out there, and some of it may seem very gloomy or negative. Nothing could be further from the truth. My intent with this blog posting was to give potential authors a bit of a reality check, which is far better than giving them unrealistic expectations, only to see their dreams dashed. That is not very nice. Every artist, whether their medium is sketching, sculpture, painting, music, or writing, all have their own reasons for being passionate about what they do. And that passion is something that must never be lost. So regardless of whether you write one book that sells only a few copies, or if you become the next J.K. Rowling, always hold onto those very things that make you passionate about your art. For me, it is a love of history and of storytelling.
So if you are one of those who becomes a writer, whether as a hobby or a full-time profession, and you find yourself under pressure to get your next work out, while at the same time being filled with endless self-doubts, I only have one thing left to say: