• West Cork Literary Festival 2021

Expert Tips from Ireland’s Top Self Publisher Catherine Ryan Howard

Writing.ie | Resources | Digital Publishing | Getting Published
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Catherine Ryan Howard

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It’s hard for me to believe, but it’s been three and a half years since I took my first step into the world of self-publishing: it was in March 2010 that I released my first travel memoir, Mousetrapped: A Year and A Bit in Orlando, Florida, in POD paperback and e-book. Back then, self-publishing was a different world. The biggest difference is that there wasn’t really much of a world at all; authors considering taking the plunge into KDP land — or DTP land, as I think it was called back then (Digital Text Platform, wasn’t it? Anyone?) — were left to their own devices with overly complicated instructions, community forums full of information black holes and their own crippling self-doubt. The only real way to learn how to self-publish was to do it, and then wait for what you did wrong to present itself (my first ePub had 1,300+ pages, as I’d accidentally inserted a page break after every paragraph) so you could try to not make the same mistake the next time around.

DENIS author 1.jpgI didn’t even realize, for instance, as I happily uploaded a MS Word document to the Website Formerly Known As DTP, that it was something I couldn’t have done only a short time ago; they’d just started accepting Word files for conversion, as opposed to ready-made ePub and Mobi files.

But I was extremely lucky, in that I lucked in to getting most of the most important things right. And I do mean to use the word lucky; I had next to no idea of what I was doing, working as I was only with a love of books, a decade’s worth of reading ‘How To Get Published’-type titles and a lot of trial and error. But despite the explosion of services, advice blogs, retail avenues, guidebooks and seminars self-publishers have enjoyed over recent years, there’s still a lot I’d do exactly the same where I to find myself self-publishing for the first time all over again…

I would still make Google my friend.

I haven’t spent a minute of my life worrying about silly SEO (vital for used car dealers, almost certainly irrelevant for writers), but I did consider what would happen if, say, someone was driving home and heard my name on the radio, or from a friend, and then went to look me up online. Would they find me at the top of the first page of search results? I share my real name with the fifth wife of Henry VIII so I threw my mother’s maiden name, Ryan, into the middle of it to ensure that Google would find me before her.

That’s why I despair when I see authors, both self-published and traditionally published, calling their books after things that already exist—movies (Some Like It Hot), famous song lyrics (Love is in the Air) or generic phrases (Change of Heart). Doing this makes Google your enemy, because it’s had far longer to establish links and tracks to the creations that used those words originally, and you’ll never come anywhere near the top.

Before you decide on a title for your book, search for it online. If it’s already the name of a million other things, it might be time for a rethink.

backpacked & kindleI would still build anticipation before the book hit any virtual shelves.

There’s a bit of a Litmus test for how well a self-published author can potentially do with marketing their own book, and although it isn’t a hard and fast rule, it’s been a good indicator so far. The question is: when did I (or you, or anyone online in the target market) first hear about their book? If it was a tweet that said, ‘My book is finally on Amazon! $2.99! Please buy it. Please RT thanks’ then it’s already too late. I should’ve heard about the book before it came out, back when you were slowly but surely building anticipation by a) teasing us about the prospect of being able to read this book soon and b) giving us reasons to care enough to want to read it. When you wait until the book is out, you’ve already missed out on so many opportunities to send word of your book out into the virtual world.

Start your promotional efforts once you decide to self-publish. Don’t wait until you actually have.

I would still try to emulate traditional publishing.

The more I learn about what happens behind the scenes of a major publishing house, the more I despair about how we as self-publishers, acting alone and with minimal budgets, are ever going to recreate a production process like it. But we must try, because we both know that if we selected at random five self-published books and five traditionally published books and set them side by side, we’d be able to tell which are which without even opening the cover. I try to follow the process: (i) editing (a structural edit if you can afford it, or relying on your writers’ group or trusted feedback otherwise), (ii) copyediting, (iii) proofreading, (iv) professional cover design, (v) making the inside of your e-book perfect with either painstaking formatting or paying for someone else to convert it, (vi) a comprehensive marketing plan. You should also, I think, pick a release date to build towards (even if you’ll be uploading your book before that) and approach reviewers in a professional way.

I also refuse to write in public. There’s a rash of websites that encourage this, with more and more springing up each and every day, where authors can upload partials and be critiqued on them by fellow users, who themselves have uploaded their work. The worst ones have voting or rating systems that imply they’ll get the cream to the top. The benefit for you, they say, is that you’re finding fans before the book is even released. I’m 100% against this, unless this is the way you want to write forever and you get a kick out of the ‘public’ aspect of it. But me? I want to write books, make them as good as they can be in private, before releasing them, whole and complete, into the world.

Just think of it this way: pick your favourite author, and ask yourself what would they do. Mine is Michael Connelly, who has sold something like 10 million books in the last twenty years, won countless awards and had two books (and counting) made into Hollywood movies. His reoccurring character, Harry Bosch, is a real person to me. So I ask myself: would would Michael do, eh? Would he write his book in public, online, and ask for the feedback of strangers and worse, listen to it? I don’t think so. So neither do I.

But it works the other way too: Connelly has a great webmaster and although I do my own website work (because I’m a ways away from 10 million copies… a universe’s ways away!) I can take ideas from her. They once had a competition where they asked readers to send in pictures of them reading Connelly’s newest book, which were posted on the Connelly Facebook page. They called it Look Who’s Reading [the book’s title]. When Mousetrapped came out, I did the same thing: Look Who’s Reading Mousetrapped. It was fun, and it generated content for my new Mousetrapped Facebook page.

Whatever your feelings on traditional publishing, they’re the old hands and we’re the new kids. There’s room for all of us here—that’s the beauty of this self-publishing revolution—and so instead of dismissing them, why not try to learn from them instead?

I would still focus on e-books.

If I take out my calculator and do my sums, I have to admit that I only ever published a POD paperback to bring on the warm-and-fuzzys—I just wanted to hold a physical book in my hand for my own sense of achievement, even though it didn’t make much financial sense. (The one exception to this is my self-publishing guide, Self-Printed, which readers report is much better to have in a printed edition, for referring to.) E-books, for the self-publisher, is where it’s at. It requires no major investment, the profit margin is bigger, you can update the books whenever you like and it’s one field that’s certainly level: we can make great e-books, even if we might still be a bit behind with POD paperbacks.

These days I’d get the e-book out first and on every distribution platform I can think of (for those of us in Ireland, that’s basically Amazon Kindle and Smashwords’ Premium Catalogue, although eBookPartnership can get you on places like Waterstones and WH Smith’s e-book store too), and if you want to take advantage of Amazon’s KDP Select program, think of it in the short-term, like the hardcover: release your e-book there first, exclusive to Amazon, and then 90 days later, go full distribution. Simples!

I would still focus on ‘The Big Three’ of social media.

Social media is the Catch-22 of self-publishing. You need it to sell your books and to stay sane—if I hadn’t connected with other self-publishers, I’d have gone off the deep end long ago!—but it takes up so much time it starts to make this self-publishing thing look unattractive. I have several things to say to the self-publisher who moans and groans about ‘that twittering thing’ (namely: Are You Being Cautious… Or Just Lazy?) but today I’ll just say this: focus on The Big Three, and forget about everything else.

When I released my first self-published title, it was March 2010: the same month that Pinterest opened in closed beta (i.e. invite only while they figured out whether or not the site worked). Vine wasn’t even a twinkle in anyone’s eye, and Buffer, my favourite application in the world and the one that has helped me get to 12,000 blog subscribers by tweeting links to my posts while I sleep, was only about to start looking for investors. It’s a completely different world now, and who knows what it’ll look like in five years’ time. In the meantime, don’t fret. Just start blogging, tweet links to your posts and other ones you find interesting (chatting to your fellow self-publishers as you go) and set up a Facebook page for you as an author. If you manage that, you’ll do just fine.

I will be talking about these topics and more at the Irish Writers’ Centre in Dublin this Saturday, 12th October, on my full-day seminar, How To Self-Publish and Sell Your E-Book. It will run from 10.30am to 5pm and tickets are €85 for non-members, €75 for members. Find out more here. My self-publishing ‘how to’ book, Self-Printed: The Sane Person’s Guide to Self-Publishing, is available in paperback and e-book from Amazon.co.uk. I blog at www.catherineryanhoward.com

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