Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Self-publishing? Use the right tools!

by Pete Morin

When I began to write Diary of a Small Fish in February of 2008, I had no idea if I’d even finish it. All I had were some searing memories, a simple idea and a new “hobby.”

When I finished it and began to query in July of 2009, I had a little more than a pipe dream that I’d even get an agent. My query went 0-for-110, and I was ready to pack it in when I met Christine Witthohn at the first writers’ conference I attended, Crime Bake. She liked my elevator pitch—mostly because she’s married to a lawyer.

In April of 2010, we became a team. I went through 6 months of rewrites, and in December of 2010, Christine submitted the manuscript to a carefully selected group of editors.

Four months later, having heard nothing from any of them, Christine and I began to discuss the prospect of self-publishing. I am very fortunate to have found an agent who understands and embraces the changes in the marketplace.

So, I have now launched Diary of a Small Fish and joined the proud ranks of the “indie” community—or as those stuffed shirts call us, “self-publishers.”

What did I do to prepare for this? A lot of things you’ve already read about. There’s nothing particularly new I can tell you, but perhaps I’ll reinforce messages you’ve heard before. Maybe you'll even disagree with something—if you do, you're not necessarily wrong. We're just blogging here, you know.

Building a Platform

This is one of those terms that sounds more impressive than it really is, but still, a see a lot of people who think of the word “platform” as a synonym for “soapbox.” I think that’s a big mistake.

When you see someone up on a soapbox (figuratively speaking), what is the first thing that comes to mind?

He’s selling something, or he’s lecturing. Unless you know who he is, odds are you’re going to tune out or take him for a nut job.

A platform is a “following,” but not in the sense of a pied piper—that would be Grimm. A platform is what I like to look at as an ever-expanding circle of friends, acquaintances and affinity groups with whom you’ve interacted such that they are likely to have an interest in what you are doing. I believe you need to begin doing this well in advance of launching a novel and asking people to buy it.

My social media tool of choice is Facebook. I’ve picked and chosen my friends—not every single person inhabiting the realm, and not all writers. Many old friends from Authonomy, other writers who are friends of friends. Old school chums from as far back as first grade. Musician friends and local music fans from the Boston area. Artists from other venues. I’ve introduced many of these people to each other—so my old high school chums are now interacting with writer friends in UK, Australia, Japan. I make sure to post things on my page that are not just writing related. A lot of articles on publishing, for sure—things that other writers will find helpful. Book recommendations when I’ve found something special. Also quirky news bits, cartoons (thanks to brother Jim for his stellar work!), jokes, gags, you name it. The idea is to establish a track record of posting things people like to see. When your posts come across their news feed, they’re highly inclined to click and read.

The measure of success isn’t necessarily in the number of comments. I’m guessing that for every comment you receive on a FB post or blog entry, there are at least three times that number who’ve read it. So if you use Facebook, pay some attention to varying your material. Be eclectic. Be unique. Be funny. One thing I notice is the number of “likes” that come from people who aren’t even friends. I’ve gained dozens of new friends that way!

I don’t think it’s possible to fully utilize every social media tool there is. Unless you don’t eat or sleep. The best you can do—and still have time to write—is to pick one or two to focus on, and hit them hard. And keep busy enough on the others that you’ve at least got some activity.

If you’re keeping a blog, bear in mind that your blogroll is as or more important than your own posts. You get more out of commenting on other peoples’ blogs than you get from your own page. I’m very bad at this, but try to stop in for visits on a regular basis, and leave a card at the door (i.e., comment) before you leave. You’d be surprised how this results in increased traffic to your own.

Don’t post for the sake of posting. Offer something interesting or don’t post at all. Your goal is to give people a reason to return. If you take care that each thing you post is worth their time, they will return. Give them a reason to doubt it, and they’ll desert you quickly.

The trick to making social media work for you is to understand to whom you’re marketing. I do not do Facebook or my blog because I believe my market is other writers. It isn’t. They are my friends, my colleagues. We’ve experienced this changing landscape together. We’ve offered each other support, critique. I’ve bought and read more than two dozen SP novels this year alone. Other writers are not my sales market. But they are an important—critical—part of my marketing effort. And I theirs. So my objective is not for them to buy my novel. It is to make them aware of it, and give it to them if I can. Big difference, both response and what they do with it.

Building a Book Cover

If you’re now reading for the first time how important the cover of your eBook is, you really haven’t begun to do your research. Suffice to say that “don’t judge a book by its cover” might be useful as a life metaphor. It doesn’t reflect the nature of the vast majority of book buyers whose very first buying instinct—looking inside the cover—is based exclusively on that very act.

Do not make the mistake of using your own instincts to become “art director” in this. I know—you’re a creative artist! You know what “good art” is! You don’t need to spend money having someone else tell you what’s pretty!

In most cases, this is a big mistake.

I have the benefit (perhaps) of enough years of circumspection to recognize what I don’t know. Graphic art is definitely one of them (as my wife, a graphic artist, well knows). But graphic art as applied to an eBook cover that will appear on a website as a thumbnail image is an entirely different matter. You simply must have foremost in your mind that a small image of your cover must stand out! It must stand out!

To appreciate this, you need to go to the eBook websites and look at hundreds of images. Just scan them with your eyes. Note which ones your eyes stop on. Do you see any pattern? Is there a particular color that attracts more than others? Notice all those fonts? Contrasts? Design elements?

Ack! If you’re putting up a free eBook collection of shorts, maybe you can afford to let it fly and pull up an old painting from the public domain. I did that with Uneasy Living, and it came out all right, maybe. But when you’re putting a debut novel out there with the intent to make a statement, you don’t want to rely on an amateur—you. You’re not an amateur novelist. Why have an amateur cover?

If one of your main objectives in self-publishing a novel length work is to maximize sales (and it may not be), then you must hire a graphic artist who understands the online sales dynamic. It’s one of the “expenses” you simply cannot avoid—that and the professional editor (see below). The competition for book cover art is like the Agora marketplace. Prices are reflected. Have an idea what you want, listen and be flexible to expertise you don’t have.

Everyone knows a graphic artist. I was ridiculously lucky to have run across an amazing artist who I’d shared a dorm with forty years ago. I stumbled upon Dean Rohrer on Facebook, and when I asked him if he wanted to help me, he was more than happy to help. He might regret that decision now, but in the end, both of us are rather proud of the final product and thrilled to have had this project to reunite us after all these years.

Arranging Your Innards

So you have a completed novel in proper manuscript format. I have two questions for you.

Did you have an editor read it?

Yes? Good for you. You can skip this next part.

No? You didn’t have the manuscript read by a trained set of eyes? Why? You can’t afford to?

You can’t afford not to, at least if you’re serious about what you’re doing.

There are a lot of ways to get your manuscript edited. One of course is to pay for it. The web is crawling with “professional editors,” and you have to do your due diligence to choose a decent one. What kind of diligence is due? Ask for a list of clients and contact them. Ask for the editor’s own writing sample and read it.

The cheapest way to get an edit is to use the barter system. I have a very reliable, solid, professional editor. How do I pay him? I get him more business. I read his stuff—whenever he asks. I pay him any way I can, whenever I can.

I’ll close this subject with one simple statement. If you think you can effectively edit your own work, you’re wrong. There are no exceptions to this rule. Prove me wrong, go ahead.

Are you sure your manuscript has been expertly converted and formatted into the various eBook formats?

This is a closer question. There are a lot of wonky-type writers out there who are in their element playing with file formats, converting to mobi or epub or prc or whatever. I did my own for a short story collection, and it worked out okay. That is, there are no glaring screw-ups, no stray returns, missing indents, extra page breaks.

But I have to say, I’ve read at least 25 self-published novels this year alone, and without a doubt, the most glaring annoyance (besides bad spelling and grammar) is formatting screw-ups. You worked your tushie off to get your prized work to this stage. Why take a chance on your own inexpertise?

There is a small army of people out there offering the service, but again, you have to pick carefully. A badly converted book is just as bad as a badly edited one. I chose to use Rob Siders, whose service, 52Novels.com, does the conversions for some of the big-selling authors like Joe Konrath. Rob did one hell of a job, used three different fonts, and inserted a very catchy fish hook in the chapter headings. He wasn’t cheap, but his work was meticulous, and I knew when I uploaded the files I wasn’t going to get any unpleasant surprises. In the end, it was money well spent, and looking at the book on my kindle, I have to say it looks lovely.

This is all very heady stuff these days in the publishing world. It’s like the days of the California Gold Rush, tens of thousands of enterprising folks rushing toward Sutter’s Mill with their picks, shovels and pans. Like that enterprise, in the world of self-publishing, the ones who strike gold are likely to be those with the best tools—and a little luck, of course!

17 comments:

Simon Stone said...

Excellent article as usual! Some great stuff. I'm happy to say I've followed most of it except for giving myself enough time pre-launch of my first novel. Facebook is definitely something I need to spend more time on but, like you say, trying to do everything really well (Facebook, Twitter, Blog, Goodreads, Shelfari, Library Thing, Forums etc etc) and still have time to write is just impossible!

Samantha Vérant said...

Lots of great information here and not just for those looking to self-publish. On that, I truly wish you luck on this endeavor! What an exciting time for you!!

Terry Odell said...

Excellent advice, especially on the editor. Any writer, published traditionally or indie, owes it to readers to have his work edited by someone who actually knows how to do the job--crit partners are great, but you need someone with that distance.

I was reading an indie-published book that I suspect had someone read for typos and grammar. It was relatively clean, but the writing dragged on. And on. And on. It was clear the author was in love with her words. The book would have been good at 1/2 the length.

When I put up my back list titles, I feel comfortable enough doing my own re-edits. But for my 'straight to e' books, I pay someone to edit. I figure I owe it to my readers. Especially if I want to keep them.

Terry
Terry's Place
Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

Mindy McGinnis said...

Great advice, Pete. I agree completely that it's nearly impossible to utilize every single social media tool out there to build your platform. While you choose FB, I tend to use Twitter and other blogs (commenting, interviews, guest posts, etc.) for building a platform. There are so many options, it's both fantastic and intimidating at the same time.

petemorin said...

Thanks for reading folks - Terry, I think we'd all be very interested - and would learn a lot - from your experiences with the backlist titles. Did you have trouble getting rights back? How did you fare with your publisher?

Tonja said...

Great post with lots of great advice. I particularly loved the Grimm line - that alone makes me want to read your book. :)

Jemi Fraser said...

Great advice Pete. I agree that it's important to make sure you have a product that is as polished as it can be!

petemorin said...

Tonja!

And GRIMM had a hyperlink to it too that I lost in uploading!

verboseveracity said...

That 52Novels thing is going to be incredibly useful! I'm sure if I poked at it long enough I could figure out the formatting thing, but like you said, there's no guarantee it'll be perfect, it'd probably be best to hire the experts.

Which brings me to the editors. Aren't there two kinds of editors a copy editor and a...something editor? I knew the difference between the two but now I don't remember. Are both absolutely necessary or is one more needed than the other? I'm going to see what info I can drudge up on the internet but thought I'd ask here too :)

Leslie Rose said...

This is great stuff. I will be referring to this post over and over. Going to bookmark...

petemorin said...

Verbos - that would be a developmental editor - as distinguished from a mental editor and a copy editor.

Mine is the lovable fellow curmudgeon and fellow AQC member, Robb Grindstaff. He's all three.

susanne said...

Great Post, Pete and I agree with all of that.

I worked hard on creating a platform and promoted mostly my new books. Funny thing, though one of my previously published rom-coms. 'Fresh Powder' that I had never mentioned other than in passing, suddenly took off early this year and has now sold close to 20000 Kindle copies to date. At one stage it was selling at a rate of 200 copies a day and I don't know why it took off like that. Sales have slowed now, but it's still my bestselling book ever.

About promoting, tweeting Facebokoing, blogposts, etc, I have been very active in all of that but a time comes when you think that you can't keep it up forever.

Lexi said...

Good luck with Fish, Pete.

I didn't use an editor (gasp!) but I did have some lovely beta readers who told me what they didn't like about the stories. That was, I would say, as good or better than an editor.

Matt Sinclair said...

I wholeheartedly agree with everything you've said here, especially the part that even if you think you can edit your work yourself, you're wrong. And I work as an editor! I'm just too close to the work; I've read words that weren't there because they used to be or I honestly thought they were. It's always good to have a new set of eyes. And Robb is indeed excellent! I heartily recommend him too.

petemorin said...

Sooz, those are astonishing numbers! I wonder why that particular title, especially if you haven't promoted it?

Hi Lex - you must be much better at catching typos than me.

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