Just Learn How To Do It Yourself
by Rob Watts
Remember the old sayings “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself” and “don’t pay someone to do something that you can do on your own?” Well those sayings are especially true when it comes to authors in today’s rapidly changing publishing climate. In this ever-expanding technology age that we’re living in, it almost seems senseless to me to even bother seeking out a publishing company to release our work. With all the resources readily available to us, there is no reason to take 100 percent control of the work you slaved over. After all, you gave up your free evenings and weekends, missed out on get-togethers with friends, perhaps broke up with girlfriends/boyfriends, wives/husbands in order to express your inner-workings on pages upon pages of your masterpiece. Why turn it over to anyone (except perhaps Random House or Harper Collins) when you can do a far better job at it? Of course, you might be working with a traditional publisher at the moment and could be perfectly happy with them. That’s awesome. If you’re not happy, read on.
I understand the appeal of seeing your name in print within a book which was released by a “publishing company” but I must point out that what most of these small presses are doing is profiting on your work while you get the short end of the stick. What the small genre presses do, between performing a half-assed editing job, hiring their buddy to do the cover art, printing copies and posting it to Amazon is the same thing you can do, only you can do a better job and guess what? You profit from the book sales, not them. By the way, just placing a book on Amazon and having it “listed” on B&N doesn’t count as full book distribution. Many small presses seem to think that’s the case but trust me, it’s not. Again, that’s something you can do yourself. Also, be cautious of publishers of anthologies. Or more to the point anthology mills. These are publishers who have very little credibility but they are seeking credibility by bulking up their publishing credits by churning out crappy collections one after another. They accept short stories from unsuspecting authors and give them very little in return, if anything at all. I’ve seen them all before, the editing is poor, the selection process is questionable, there is hardly any kind of distribution efforts and almost all the time, the publisher of that said anthology conveniently has their story included within the collection. Of course not all anthology publishers are sinister. But it’s like anything in life, for every pile of coal you stumble upon, you have to search hard for the diamonds.
If I can pull the curtain away from the wizard for just one moment, I’d like to point out that 99 out of 100 authors have the dreaded day job to contend with (even ones that you think have it made.) None of us by any means are rich and famous due simply to our writing craft (I can’t stand it when writers act as if they make their living off their books.) But even if we don’t find immediate fame and success with our writing, we shouldn’t be taken advantage of along the way from point A to point B. Having your work published under the imprint of anyone (other than the last of the big six publishing companies) is only costing you money in the long run. Unless of course you don’t mind only being paid in the form of one author/contributor copy and maybe if you’re lucky, a few pennies for every copy sold. As I mentioned above, you put the time into it and agonized over your story. Isn’t it worth a little more time to learn the new-school methods of independent publishing? Even though there are some reputable and highly regarded small presses out there, unfortunately for every one of those there are a thousand hucksters who will rip you off, devalue your work and never lose an ounce of sleep while doing it.
As I write this, there is an unsettling amount of bad word-of-mouth over an unfortunate non-fictional character named Anthony Giangregorio. He is the owner of Open Casket Press and Undead Press and has allegedly taken advantage of newcomers to the publishing world by way of mistreatment, misrepresentation, broken promises, less-than-crafty editing tactics and poor royalty delivery. I won’t dwell on that but it does illustrate my point immensely that you have to be careful and protect yourself from these sort of people.
Which brings me to my original point. Take a bigger chance on yourself and give your work the attention it deserves. It’s not that hard to create your own imprint to publish under. I’ve been doing it for years and quite frankly, I’m not interested in turning my work over to anyone for peanuts just to pad my bibliography resume’. My work is too valuable to me and every word I write means something. That’s not egotistical, it’s simply how I feel about something that I spend my free time doing. It should be just as important to you to not throw your work on just anyone’s lap. I had the misfortune of working with a couple of small traditional publishers in the 90s who in all seriousness left me with nothing but my underwear. I was intent on avoiding that experience again and decided to cut out the middleman by creating my own company to publish under. Self-publishing (or independent publishing) is no longer a dirty word. Just ask a very talented Canadian author named Cheryl Kaye-Tardif who recently self-published Children of the Fog last fall and has thus far made $47,000 in book sales from Kindle alone. Her print edition sales have been rather spectacular as well. Independent authors, with a little research and patience, can achieve greater heights more than ever in today’s consumer age. Without giving a seminar on the subject, I’ll just share with you a handful of things to keep in mind when setting out to go it alone. They seem like no-brainers but believe me, I’ve seen people crash and burn because they were lazy about self-publishing.
1- A catchy company name. Not one that screams self publisher. If your name is Joe Schmoe, don’t call your company Joe Schmoe Publishing. Perhaps come up with a name that revolves around your subject matter or genre. Be sure to register a dot-com site (avoid dot net if possible) for the company as well. Don’t rely on the freebie sites. look professional. be professional. Make sure that your website looks occupied. Keep it updated so a visitor doesn’t think you’ve abandoned ship. Especially if you are selling books from your site. Make it inviting looking so a potential customer isn’t afraid to click that Pay Now button. One more thing, don’t clutter your pages up with unnecessary nonsense. Keep it clean and simple. Less is more. More is a bore.
2- Kindle and Nook are great supplements, but you’ll want print copies of your work if you are releasing a full-length novel, etc. After all, no one ever said “when I grow up, I want to be a writer and see my name in print on a digital e-reader.” Research a quality printer. Find one that will print small runs of 50 to 100 copies per order. Yes, it’s a little costly to pay upfront for your books, but if you truly believe in your work, you will invest the time and energy it takes to sell books and recoup your initial investment. When you need reprints, they will be far less expensive because the layout, design and initial process has been done already. Usually you can find a printer who will print your books anywhere between 3.20-4.75 per unit. If you price your book (depending on size) between $10.00-$20.00, well you’ve made a nice profit for yourself. That’s much better than getting .73 cents per copy from a blood sucking publisher.
3- How much of a profit you make on the sale of each book depends on where you are selling it. There are several avenues one can take. Amazon, of course, is the first logical choice, especially with the advent of CreateSpace. I know I listed a success story above regarding Amazon and Kindle but I must point out that you simply cannot rely on the click and publish websites as your only source of bookselling. The chances of someone buying Stephen King’s new book and then seeing Joe Schmoe in the “People Who Bought Stephen King also bought Joe Schmoe” section are slim to none (and slim just left town.) Amazon and Barnes & Noble take a hefty cut from the sale of your (print) book so it’s worth it to get creative on how and where you sell your books. How well you promote yourself and your work is a large factor too. Ask yourself, has your publisher promoted you or your work to the best of their ability or to your liking? Probably not. Can you do a much better job? Probably yes. By the way, if you’re fortunate enough to have someone land on YOUR website, why would you want them to click a link that directs them to another site (such as Amazon?) You’ve got them so keep them. let them buy directly from you and while they are there, perhaps they will sign up for your newsletters, follow you on your social networking sites, etc. Don’t turn your book buying audience over to the corporate monsters if you don’t have to.
4- If you are going to maintain and control your inventory of books, as I do (I buy my inventory up front and control where, when and how it’s sold) then right off the bat you’ll want to make sure your website is e-commerce ready. If not, set up a PayPal account. It’s a simple process and you can cut and paste your checkout buttons right onto your site. Everyone uses PayPal today so when they see their logo in the Buy Now section, they will feel a level of confidence in purchasing your book(s). The only caveat to this is that you can’t afford to be lazy when it comes to being your own distributor online. If someone spends money on your book, you had better package that book up nicely and get it to the post office in a timely fashion. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bought directly from someones website and got ripped off. As I mentioned above, keep your site updated so your customer feels confident in their purchase.
5- Get creative with how you publish your work. Make it stand out from all the assembly line products that are on the market today. I’m not just just talking about great cover art (although that is important … hire a good designer) I’m talking about standing out and creating a buzz around your work by offering your audience something they haven’t seen or read before. For instance, my last book Huldufolk was limited to only 250 print copies signed and numbered. It included a music soundtrack to the book which was performed by me. It has sold 212 copies since November at $15.99 a copy ($10.00 at events) so I’ve made my initial investment back and am able to put the profits made into the production of the next book. The New York Times Bestseller list isn’t going to be knocking at my door over this, but as an independent seller it’s significant. Whether or not it’s the greatest story ever told is not for me to judge or assume. This is by no means an advertisement for my work. It’s to illustrate the appeal that my book had to a certain book buying audience. I’ll give you another example unrelated to my work. A few years back, a friend of mine sold their book inside of a “writers survival basket” which included the book (on self-publishing), a coffee mug w/gourmet coffee packs, candy, note pads, etc, etc. It sold like hotcakes. So the point is, do something unique with your work. Come up with something special that says “I’m serious about what I do.” These little rinky dink publishers will never put that much thought into promoting your work. You can and you’ll be all the better for it.
I could rattle on-and-on about the various things I’ve picked up on over the years but honestly I’m not writing this to give a lecture on the do’s and don’ts on self-publishing. I’m merely suggesting that anyone who’s been left with a bad taste in their mouth from working with a less-than-reputable publisher should seriously consider doing it on their own. You will be in control of your work, you will become more business savvy as time goes on, you will discipline yourself as a writer because you’ll be aware of what it will take to generate book sales and most of all you will profit more from it in the end. I hate to hear horror stories (no pun intended) about writers being taken advantage of. Hopefully someday these stories will lessen over time, but I’m not prepared to hold my breath that long.
Watts wrote this article for the NEHW and also published it on his LiveJournal site.