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A Self-Printed Summer Week #1: Should You Self-Publish?

Writing.ie | Guest Bloggers | Self-Printed

Catherine Ryan Howard

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Welcome to a Self-Printed Summer here on Writing.ie, where over the next 8 weeks I’ll be taking you through the self-publishing process, telling you everything you need to know in the order you need to know it in to successfully produce a Print-On-Demand (POD) paperback and Kindle e-book. Today we’re going to ask the question: should you self-publish?

The first thing we need to self-publish is a good book. Seems obvious, right? Well, sadly, it isn’t. Every minute of every day writers are self-publishing terrible, awful, embarrassingly bad books and thinking that it’ll be mere weeks before their first zero-filled royalty cheque arrives in the door. Your book has to be good. The quality of your book is, I think, even more important in self-publishing than it is in traditional publishing, because with the support of a publishing house, a marketing budget and shelf-space in chain bookstores, a  traditionally published bad or not very good book can still sell – even sell well. But if a self-published book is bad, it’s dead in the water, and your heart will be torn apart by the acidic sting of bad reviews. So save yourself, your time and your money by checking that it is first.

How Can I Tell If My Book Is Good?

When you tell people that you’re self-publishing (if you’re brave enough to do that!), you tend to get much the same reaction as you would if you’d told them that since Weightwatchers hadn’t worked, you’re going to attempt a DIY stomach stapling operation on your kitchen table. They flash a frozen smile, nod and think to themselves, This is going to be truly terrible. This actually works in our favour, as very low expectations rarely lead to disappointment later on. But what can we do to avoid our book actually being truly terrible?

That’s easy: try to sell it to someone else first, because you cannot tell whether or not your book is good, and neither can anyone who has to tell you to your face, e.g. family, friends and members of your writers’ group.

Self-published books need to be good. I don’t think they need to be brilliant or even very good, because plenty of traditionally published books are far from that. But you do need to ensure that your book isn’t crap. This is not only to prevent even more rubbish from entering the self-publishing sphere but to save you and your feelings from bad reviews and harsh feedback. If you dream of writing becoming your career then you should take that into consideration as well: once you release the book you can’t take it back. (You can un-publish it, of course, but you can’t scrub the magical interweb of its existence, or take it back from the people who bought it.) You never know: a future interested agent or publisher might be on the verge of offering you a deal, only to Google your name and find out about Diary of a Teenage Luke Skywalker, and how it was less entertaining than the instruction manual for a microwave oven.

I don’t believe that friends, family or even – tad controversial – writers’ groups should be trusted to tell you whether or not your book is good. The only sure-fire way to get an unbiased, reliable opinion is to try to get your book “properly” published first.

Presumably most self-publishers do this anyway but even if you don’t want to be traditionally published (you crazy thing – why wouldn’t you?!), it won’t hurt to see what the experts – and yes, they are the experts – have to say about it first. Write a query letter, send it out. If you don’t know how to write a query letter, go online and find out how. Approach agents and publishers who you know have clients like you or have already published books in the same genre as yours. Your aim is to get a full manuscript request and then see what the agent or editor has to say.

I wouldn’t self-publish unless I was at least getting full script requests. The first three chapters and a synopsis of Mousetrapped went to one agent and five or six Irish publishing houses, and all but two of them requested the full book. (The ones who didn’t said they were small publishing houses who had to be certain of sales before releasing a title, and that based on my synopsis my book’s subject matter didn’t inspire confidence that it would bring those sales.) The agent and two of the editors sent me detailed e-mail replies, and one editor called me on the phone to discuss it. They all said the same thing: they enjoyed reading it, they thought it was well written, they thought it was funny (in some places, anyway) but ultimately there was just no market in Ireland for a book about a girl from Cork going to work in Disney World.

It wasn’t all glowing: the editor who I talked to on the phone said there was a bit too much moaning in the middle, a huge chunk of which got hit with the Delete button soon afterwards. I felt then – and I still feel now – that this was sufficient positive feedback to warrant me self-publishing my book. What they were basically saying was that Mousetrapped would have too few potential readers for them to recoup the money they’d spend on publishing it, not that it was a bad book. To the contrary, they enjoyed it. But if I self-published using a financially risk-free Print-On-Demand service and/or e-book website, I wouldn’t have to spend any money at all or at least very little of it, and then any sales revenue I had would just be profit.

If Mousetrapped had got nothing but faint photocopied rejection slips, I wouldn’t have even considered self-publishing it. I would have left it in a drawer, or chucked it in the recycle bin.

What happens if someone says yes, we’ll publish it? Um, are you kidding me? YOU say yes to THEM! Then you can avoid this whole self-publishing thing altogether and get money up front. Crack open the champagne!

I said this to a self-publishing author once, and his response was along the lines of, “That’s a good idea, but there’s no point in me doing it. I sent out a query letter about my novel to ten agents, and none of them asked to even see some chapters. They all said no. They wouldn’t even give it a chance. So I’m just going to go ahead and self-publish it…”

You know when you watch American Idol or X-Factor or whatever, and some vocally-challenged warbler squeaks out a bad rendition of Lady Gaga, gets rejected and then cries, “But you didn’t even give me a chance!”?

Those two stories are not unrelated.

The thing is, if you can write a good book, you can write a good query letter to advertise that book. If you can’t write a good query letter, well… maybe your book is still good, but you’re not going to be able to do many of the things you’ll need to do if you decide to self-publish (write your own blurb, write a press release, sell your own book, etc.). The moral of the story: you need to be getting full manuscript requests.

There are exceptions to this, as they are to every rule. Certain genres – like romance and erotica, for instance – may actually have a better chance getting self-published and sold as a 99c e-book than they ever would if they were traditionally published, and sometimes publishers say no to a book simply because there is no precedent, and therefore they can’t figure out whether or not it’ll make money. A good example of this is the (ultimately self-published) Chicken Soup for the Soul series, which was rejected by umpteen publishers. You also need to ensure that you are sending your query letters or opening chapters to suitable agents and publishers; all you’re going to get is no if you’ve written science-fiction and you’re targeting an editor who only deals in chick-lit.

This process takes time – I submitted Mousetrapped for over a year – and you may not have that time to spare. If that’s the case there is a shortcut, but it’s not ideal because it costs money and this person is never going to say, “This book makes [air-headed soap actress who has turned to novel-writing] look like Hemingway – it should never see the light of day again.” I’m talking about a manuscript critique service. You find one, send your book off to them and a professional reads it and writes a report. There’s a couple of services recommended at the end of this book but you should easily be able to find one in your area. Just make sure you go with one that isn’t connected in ANY way to a self-publishing company, as some are, and that has previous clients’ testimonials or other recommendations you can rely upon.

One important note here: listen to what they say. I know of a self-published author who did this and was told that he had to cut his 450,000-word novel (!) down to at least 180,000, which is about a Stephen King (i.e. a longish book) because it was fatally overwritten. He was using 37 words where one would have done. He decided not to (because it would have “interfered” with the story) and self-publish it as it was. I’ve read the first chapter of this book, and all that happens in the first 1,500 words is that someone gets out of a car. All you’d need to count how many copies he’s sold are the fingers on one of your hands.

Believe in your book, but don’t delude yourself. Get the feedback you’ll need to sell it confidently, to be able to send it out for review without feeling like you’re going to keel over because you’re so afraid of what they might say. Test the waters before you jump in and if the water’s cold, put some clothes on.

Or something.

I’ve Just Skipped That Entire Section Because Come Hell or High Water, I’m Self-Publishing This Book

Maybe you know your book isn’t that good, or someone told you it wasn’t good and you chose not to believe them, and yet you’re dead set on going ahead with self-publishing anyway. Maybe you just want to see your book in book form, and that’s allowed. Of course it is. But that’s called vanitypublishing* (for a reason), and that’s not what this is about. You’re more of a hobbyist, and my approach is aimed at entrepreneurs.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the most successful self-publishers are the ones who treat it like a business, just like starting up a new company or opening a restaurant or producing a new product. If you just want to see your name on a paperback spine, there are easier ways. Upload your files to CreateSpace, order a proof copy and – ta-daa! – there’s your book. Save yourself the time, effort, blood, sweat and tears (and us from your potentially bad book), and let’s leave it at that. Because no entrepreneur sinks time, money and energy into a bad product, at least not knowingly. So don’t bother. Just get yourself a copy of your book and be done with it.

You should also take that advice if you and your book are in what I call the Selling Houses category. Selling Houses was a property TV programme where a suave estate agent with floppy Nineties hair went round to houses that had been on the market for ages without as much as a nibble, to see what he could do to make them sell. (In a similar vein: The House Doctor.) Typically, Floppy Hair would walk into a house where the paint was peeling off the front door, cardboard boxes were stacked in the hallway, the living room was painted Barbie pink, the playroom was home to sixteen cats (and their litter trays), the kitchen had no room for a fridge, the fridge was in fact in the dining room, the master bedroom had a stripper pole and there were no doors on any of the bathrooms. It would be painfully obvious to Floppy Hair and to the viewer that no one was ever going to walk around that house and then say, “I’ll take it!” But the owners would disagree. They’d look around at their cardboard boxes and their stripper pole and their doorless bathrooms and say to themselves, “Well, I like this house, so there must be someone else out there who will too.” Just because youliked reading your book doesn’t mean everybody – or anybody – else will. Not until you move those boxes and repaint the living room walls, anyway.

*Technically-speaking any form of book publishing where the author hands over money instead of money being handed to the author is vanity publishing. But I’m using the term vanity publishing (“I just want to see my book as a book) here merely to differentiate from the way I’m using the term self-publishing (“I want to sell copies of my book”).

But Is Now The Time for Me To Do It?

When should you self-publish? At what point do you say now is the time?

If you’ve previously been trying to get the book traditionally published:

This is tricky, because it’s so hard to give up when, who knows? Maybe the very next agent or publisher you send it to will be the one to say yes. When to self-publish – and thus, give up on your traditional publication dreams – is probably the toughest decision you’ll make in this whole operation and it’s not one I recommend you take lightly.

For me, it was where my rejection-induced heartbreak reached a saturation point, and where that met the head-banging-against-a-brick-wall point of the submission process. I’d been submitting for a year and was getting pretty sick of it, and I wanted to concentrate on writing a novel, which is what I really wanted to do. I might have kept submitting for a little bit longer, but the rejections I was getting all said the same thing: there wasn’t enough of a market in Ireland or the UK to warrant publication. I was getting nowhere, and I was never going to get anywhere until I did something different. So I did.

For you, perhaps the decision is a little more complicated, and the self-publishing point harder to find. For instance, what if Mousetrapped had been a novel? Then I might have been risking my future getting-my-novel-published dreams by self-publishing it – and I wouldn’t have. But if it had been a novel that two or three top editors said they loved (just not enough – surely the most infuriating rejection!) and I really needed some shoe money, then maybe I would have released it only as an e-book and under a different name.

Maybe you’ve already been traditionally published, and have a new novel that you want to get straight out there yourself. Or maybe you’ve written a book with time-sensitive content, e.g. a guide to avoiding the Royal Wedding or handling the associated jealousy because William didn’t pick you. Or maybe you’ve already posted a few chapters online and you have thousands of loyal followers just waiting to shell out their hard-earned cash for the full-length paperback. In all those cases, the time to self-publish is now. Or yesterday.

When you self-publish, you don’t automatically ruin your chances of getting traditionally published. (In fact if you do it well, building up a platform and selling a significant number of copies in the process, you may even help your chances.) But it will almost certainly ruin any chance you have of getting that same book published. Publishing it yourself in paperback is still publishing it, and that affects the rights you then have to sell, if you’ve left yourself any. Of course you might go on to sell 10,000 copies in six months and hearing this, a publishing house may rock up with a dotted line for you to sign on but the catch-22 of self-publishing is that by then, it wouldn’t be in your best financial interests to do it.

Self-publishing is supposed to open doors for you, not close them. So be sure you’ve knocked on them all before you start down this road.

If you’d always intended to self-publish:

If you wrote the book with the intention of self-publishing it, then the decision of course is a lot simpler. You can self-publish as soon as you and your book are ready. That’s when:

  • You’ve made the book as good as you can make it
  • You’ve employed a manuscript assessment service or an editor to take a look at your book
  • You’ve listened to what they said and implemented at least some of the suggested changes
  • You’ve done your pre-publication promotion work (more on that later)
  • You’ve set aside the time and head-space to DO THIS THING.

So have you decided to self-publish? If so, dust off that manuscript, turn on the coffee machine and join me next Wednesday for Week 2: Preparing Your Book for Self-Publication.

My book, Self-Printed: The Sane Person’s Guide to Self-Publishing, is out now in paperback and e-book. Find out more onSelfPrintedBook.com. Find out more about Mousetrapped: A Year and A Bit in Orlando, Florida, the book I self-printed, onMousetrappedBook.com.

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