Sunday, 16 November 2014

Writing a Book - My Self Publishing Experience and Advice


I have offered advice in a number of articles, see below, and thought it might help to put this in context with how I started and some of my initial pitfalls. I would like to start by asking a question – why self publish? Many folk refrain from self publishing in the hope of a publishing contract. That’s very sound, but my advice is to try both routes. Develop a novel that you are happy to self publish and see how it goes. The publishing route is incredibly difficult as we all know, but clearly not impossible as many people do manage that route. Some self-publishers also achieve that route (Michael Sullivan for example). 

Initially, I sent an enquiry letter to quite a few publishers and literary agents in both the UK and US and received many rejection letters for my efforts. Months passed before I received any responses and as time passed I set about improving my novels. Over the years, the first sample chapters I sent off probably bear little resemblance to the final versions. You cannot kid yourself though; the quality of the sample chapter, blurb and synopsis has to be incredibly high if you want to go via a publisher. Any spelling or grammatical errors will put the publisher/literary agent off. You need to engage with a good editor from the start. Paying someone over the Internet can be a recipe for disaster. Most folks are in this business for the money and will do as brief a job as possible. Not all people are like that, but editing is a time consuming business so it can be expensive. Ideally a friend or family member can make this process cheap, but will they be up to the task?

I had an interesting experience over the phone with a literary agent. It went like this:

Me: High, I have a manuscript and was wondering whether you would read it?
LA: Hello dear. Are you an established author?
Me: No.
LA: Then it will be rubbish, dear.
Me: My friends and family enjoyed it.
LA: They would say that. Wouldn't they dear?

She had an interesting point. You really should not ask family members about your work. It is unfair and puts them in a difficult position. It also raises your expectations. Be advised that editing your book may help improve the grammar and spelling, but you need to check that it really is helping. Some editors will correct what you give them, but pay little or no attention to the storyline and characterisation. If both are poor from the start, then they will remain poor unless an editor is prepared to advise you on those. Clearly that will require multiple edits and so will raise the cost. But, as I have said, the quality of your work has to be very high, for both published and self published work.

I wrote my manuscripts a long time ago and have spent the time since converting them from hand written forms to computer documents. I have also spent much of this time revising the books (I wrote a trilogy which for a first effort is a bad mistake as it triples all your costs). I also learned a lot about self publishing and as you will see, I did that literally.

I initially submitted my manuscripts to the local library. They put out a call for local authors to do this. My manuscripts were in folders at the time and I put a picture on the cover. Other authors submitted something similar so I was not alone in my quality standards. It was at this point that I had a revelation – no one was taking any of the folders out, possibly due to being embarrassed about taking out a manuscript in a binder.

This made me interested in real self publishing, i.e. producing my own book bound copy. I spent a while perfecting this. I used cloth soaked in glue as the initial spine and had a one piece cover made. I built a wooden frame which could compress the book via various clips. I learned to print A5, double sided so that my paper costs were optimised. I actually made some very serviceable books and they almost looked the part.

Back to the library I went and to my relief the books started to go out. It was a marvellous feeling; the books had their own reference number and docket so I could check once in while. The books were definitely being borrowed and as often as any other in the library. That was a great feeling. One day I was behind a chap in the library queue and I overheard him asking for the third book in my trilogy. The library didn’t have a copy as it was out, so I raced home and got him a copy. The chap was very pleased.

For a while this was great, but I wasn't getting any feedback. My books were in the library for about 4 years and I even had to replace worn out copies. So you can see that time can fly. The only justification I had that the books were OK was that all three were being borrowed and that at least made me feel justified as an author. It was at this stage that friend mentioned LULU, a new (or at least new to me) self publishing business.

My next steps were a real learning process. I didn't want to commit too much money to the task, as I was an unknown author and I knew that my books may not appeal. It was becoming more of a serious hobby though. To keep costs down I used old photos that I had taken in part for a historical re-enactment group I belong to – Regia Anglorum. The photos had a distinctly fantasy feel to them so I though they would do the job. I had to get ISBN numbers (the self publisher supplies these now) and register as a publisher.

Within 6 months I had the next generation of novels available for sale and again what a terrific feeling that was. However, Lulu (at the time) was a little strange in that they were meant to be a US company, but the costs of selling the books in the US was prohibitively expensive. They simply took the UK costs and converted this pro rata to dollars, which at the time was crazy. I then found Createspace (Amazon based company) and published books with them as well, with a slight variation in the title. This was great as Createspace books sold realistically priced in the US and LULU similarly in the UK.

Things were really moving, but book sales were sluggish. Several more years passed and for my latest novel I went to a graphic designer to get a really good book cover made. I also spent money with two editors, receiving a passable effort from one and a really dedicated effort from the other. At this stage I was truly self published. My greatest breakthrough was Kindle. Last year I averaged 100 e-book sales a month; over a thousand books in the year.

My reviews were increasing and I won a Gold Award on one website and my books achieved book of the month on another, which really helped my confidence, but strangely did little to help sales. However, I was finally gaining credentials.

In the present day, by far the hardest issue now remains marketing. Google frequently changes how it ranks websites. For a while my ranking was good, but has recently and mysteriously dropped. I now spend far more time marketing than writing. Like the synopsis and blurb, marketing is yet another talent area. You may have noticed by now that there is a propensity for costs to escalate. You must be very careful who you go to, to help with editing, marketing, publishing and there are a lot of Internet sharks waiting to take your money. That is the subject of another article I wrote, Internet sharks and the FBI[1].

Finally, in hindsight should I have gone the self publishing route? I should say that over the years I have read a few published books that quite frankly were dreadful. You cannot fault the English and grammar, but the story lines... Some were so dreadfully dull that I gave up on them, which is rare for me. Don’t get me wrong that this is frequent, but it does show that the published route is not perfect.

I am pleased to be gaining a pedigree, which helps to show the self publishing route is not a complete loss. Even though there are dreadful books that are self published, there are also gems. Where my books fit on that scale, I do not fully know. I know where I would like to think they are, but you must be very careful in making that assumption.

As to advice; as you can see from my experience patience is a great virtue. It has taken years to get to this point. Self publishing companies are making huge strides in making this process far easier than the route that I took. Neither Lulu nor Createspace charge, other than for their distribution channels. I would suggest that you shouldn't have to pay too much to self publish, but do not expect an instant hit and massive sales. Even published books sometimes do not make it. Bookshops have limited space and many published books go on their shelves for only a brief period and then are removed if they haven’t proven themselves.

Self publishers should refrain from asking family and friends to write reviews, especially when they haven’t read the work. It is fairly obvious when this happens as the language is far too complimentary. You also expect to get some poor reviews, after all not everyone will like your work.

There is a great deal of gratification from producing a book. There is also potential for heartbreak. Writing is not a route to instant success or riches. I have heard of some people leaving their jobs to write. Having sold a thousand books in a year – my reward? About $500 so you can see that you are unlikely to become a millionaire. I do wish folk success though, and for the few that do become millionaires? Well done! Well done indeed!

David Burrows









[1] http://ezinearticles.com/?Trials-and-Tribulations-of-a-Self-Published-Author---Internet-Sharks,-the-FBI-and-Reviews&id=6919278

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