Learn Secrets to Self-Pub Success

What should writers bear in mind when selecting self-publishers?
You get what you pay for. Sure, you can get your book printed for a low, low price, but not if you want it done right. Good editing takes great skill, careful attention and time. If you want a proficient, experienced editor to go through your manuscript with a fine-toothed comb, it will cost you. But it’s worth it. When I submitted my manuscript to iUniverse, I thought it was in near-pristine condition. It was sent back to me with thousands of recommended punctuation and grammatical changes. I was mortified, but, my editor reassured me, it really wasn’t that bad. There were few structural problems to address, she reassured me, leaving her free to focus on the details. There were further rounds of editing to refine the manuscript after I had made the recommended changes. These additional rounds cost money. Indexing costs money. Competent interior and cover design costs money. If you want your book to meet industry standards, you have to pay to get it to that condition.

[In the months you spent going over the manuscript with iUniverse,] what issues were you working on, and what do you think self-publishing writers should focus on during the process for the best final product?

Once the interior was completed, we moved on to the cover design and cover copy. I had designed a few possible covers, which I thought were pretty good. The design team at iUniverse rejected them outright as substandard, and suggested instead that I incorporate a fine art print into the cover. They sent me a selection of iStock photo possibilities—illustrated scenes from Shakespeare plays—mostly Hamlet and Macbeth, usually involving ghosts. I began to look around and eventually found the 1838 Delacroix painting of “Hamlet and Horatio in the churchyard” that now appears on the cover. I thought it made a far better metaphor than any of the other images. I purchased the rights to use this from Art Resource and sent the image to iUniverse. They built the cover design around the image, and I am quite pleased with it.

Crafting the cover copy was very tough. Distilling the book down to a few short promotional make-or-break paragraphs was agonizing, and I must have spent 20 hours working on it.

Did you utilize any other editing or fact-checking professionals for your text?
Other than iUniverse, I didn’t pay anyone for these services. I had an English professor named Gordon Jones read a very early manuscript. He offered many helpful pointers, and directed me to essential readings. I was also fortunate to have an astute and willing reader in my aunt, Judy Harrison, who read about 20 versions of my manuscript and pointed out continuity problems, unnecessary duplications and awkward sentence structures. Finally, when the book was nearing publication, I sent it to a friend in England named Peter Farey, who read and fact checked the manuscript. Peter has been involved in researching the “Marlowe wrote Shakespeare” theory for decades, and nobody knows more about it than he does. He was able to spot errors that no one else could.

All told, what have you learned from self-publishing this book—and what are the top lessons you can share with your fellow writers?
Remember that you are writing for readers; you’re expecting them to pay hard-earned money. You owe them a good book. Solicit help before you submit the book for self-publishing. Ask people, friends, family, acquaintances—anyone who will agree—to read your manuscript and tear it apart. Get used to criticism, relish it, learn to receive all of it as a gift. Every person who read my manuscript helped make the book better.

This one is tough: Once you decide to place your trust in a self-publishing company, you have to trust them. Listen to the advice, swallow your pride and take full advantage of the expertise that you are paying for. You will retain control and make the final decision at all times, which means you can ignore their recommendations if you wish. Try to remember that while you know your book, they know the industry and what the market responds to. They prepare books for publication for a living. If you don’t trust their judgment, you shouldn’t be in business with them.
 
What do you see as the biggest upsides of self-publishing?
It’s fast. Communication is all done electronically. No paper. Word and PDF versions of the manuscript are e-mailed back and forth. The practices of many mainstream publishing houses seem archaic by comparison. For a generation that does everything online, the thought of single-sided, double-spaced paper copies, mailed in brown envelopes by regular post, annotated by pen, and weeks waiting for the mail to arrive, comes as a bit of a shock.

Print-on-demand makes sense. There are no risky and expensive print runs piled in boxes, lying in warehouses. If someone, anywhere in the world, wants a book, it can be printed and shipped to them in days.

You have total control. You retain all rights. All the decisions are yours. The company serves your needs.

What about the biggest downsides?
The stigma. Magazines and newspapers shut the door on self-published books. Getting reviews is nearly impossible. Getting the book in bookstores on your own is an uphill battle. In their defense, bookstores and media do need a system of vouching in order to know which books are worthy of spending their time on.

You have total control. They can dispense good advice, but you can choose to ignore it, and the book may suffer. It’s your choice.
 
What do you think is the role of self-publishing on the writing landscape today?
If traditional publishers look ahead, they will study the business practices of self-publishers. They are efficient, sleek and nimble. Traditional publishers are going to get left behind if they don’t cater to the needs of a wired generation of writers.

Do you have any tips on recruiting an expert for the foreword of a self-published book?
Contact them. Celebrities will be hard to reach, but not impossible. Authors and academics, however, are usually easy to contact, and they will almost certainly respond to a well-crafted letter, so go ahead and approach them. The worst that can happen is that they’ll be flattered and decline the invitation, but they will get to know your name and the name of your book.

Take your time when writing e-mails. Be self-confident, but always maintain courtesy and a professional manner. Give them your best pitch, but keep it short. Busy people appreciate brevity, and they will be impressed if you can make an impact in a short space. If they’re interested, maybe they’ll agree to read your manuscript. If they aren’t, maybe you’ll get some feedback or advice. If you do get a response, always thank them for taking the time to respond to you personally.
 
What is the key to keeping academic subject matter like this fresh and interesting—if not thrilling—as you have done?

The book started out as an academic work, and it was important to me to maintain academic integrity, to be careful to cite sources and transcribe quotes accurately. But there is a danger that academic writing can sound stilted. It’s important to identify books that manage to strike a balance between readability and scholarship. James Shapiro’s 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare is a good example of how to do it right. It’s impeccably researched, yet grabs the reader’s attention and holds it throughout.

When I first got interested in this topic, I sought out books on the subject to satisfy my curiosity. There were two that stood out. One was a 1955 book by Calvin Hoffman called The Murder of the Man Who was Shakespeare. It was quick, dramatic and breathless. It was an exhilarating read. It appealed to the reader’s emotions. But, Hoffman had not bothered to provide citations, a reference list or an index. There was no way to check his claims, or if he had quoted sources accurately. The other was a 1994 book by A.D. Wraight called The Story That the Sonnets Tell. This book was beyond reproach as an academic work. It was well written, and where Hoffman had painted with broad strokes, Wraight emphasized detail. It was thorough, but at 600 information-packed pages, too thorough for a beginner.

I realized that there was a need for a book that would satisfy the needs of newcomers to the subject. I wanted it to have the breathless pacing of Hoffman’s book, to appeal to the reader’s emotions, but it had to aspire to the academic standards of Wraight’s book, to appeal to the reader’s intellect. I believe this is where my background in the arts and sciences was an asset. I knew that readers needed to connect emotionally, to feel a thrill when reading the book, but they also had to be reassured intellectually that the author had adhered to a strict academic standard. It was with this guiding principle that I wrote and revised the book. It was not easy to maintain the tension between these two goals, but in the end I think I managed to strike a good balance.

Read an excerpt of Marlowe’s Ghost here.

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