Book sales and distribution expert Amy Collins shares 5 truths you need to know before starting your own self-publishing imprint.
This article was originally published in the November/December 2019 issue of Writer's Digest as "Clearing the Path" by Amy Collins.
The path to success in self-publishing seems muddled to many hopeful author-publishers. Here are five truths about starting your own self-publishing imprint that illuminate the way.
In spite of how it may look, self-publishing a book is not an easier path to getting published. Authors who decide to take on the publishing of their books are, in essence, starting their own small businesses.
At a certain point in the self-publishing process, authors take off their writer hats and put on their publisher hats. While the creative focus is never set aside, it often takes a back seat once the manuscript moves through the publishing process. This shift from making art to running a business can be jarring. But there are steps authors can take to prepare themselves for the realities of this decision.
Here are some recurring truths of self-publishing that will help you navigate your journey from writer to publisher.
There are no shortcuts in self-publishing.
Self-published authors might think publishing their own book allows them to leapfrog over some of the steps that traditional publishers put their books through. It is tempting to save time and money by skipping an editorial or design step, but this does not serve the reader or the book.
Print-on-demand and DIY companies allow authors to get their books uploaded to online bookstores in a matter of days. While self-publishing is a viable option if done well, the marketplace is flooded with sub-par, poorly written, self-edited, book-shaped objects that have not gone through the proper care every book needs before being published. Reviewers, bookstores, libraries, and readers often distrust self-published books because many poorly executed works have wasted people’s time and money.
Authors who skimp on developmental editing, copy editing, proofreading, cover design, or marketing efforts often find that they suffer from lower sales and poor reviews.
Pro Tip: Budget for every element of book publishing: development editing, copy editing, layout of the interior, cover design, marketing, sales, distribution, and printing as well as every element of starting a small business.
There are predatory people and companies who take advantage of hopeful authors.
Because there are fewer established, traditional publishers now and the competition to be published by them has never been more intense, many authors are drawn to companies promising publishing “deals” in exchange for an investment from the author. Yes, there are also many honorable companies in the self-publishing industry whose missions are to help authors achieve their goals, but it is difficult to distinguish between the two.
Some self-publishing companies charge very large fees for editing and design and then outsource those tasks to inexperienced contractors. Other companies have been accused of shorting author payments, padding fees, and hiding behind highly restrictive contracts. Some authors discover after their books are published that they unintentionally signed away their copyrights.
Pro Tip: How do you know whom to trust if you want to avoid a nightmare situation in partnering with a self-publishing company? Sites such as Writer Beware (accrispin.blogspot.com) highlight offending companies. Other resources that offer a guide to the hundreds of author services out there include The Alliance of Independent Authors self-publishing service guide (self publishingadvice.org/self-publishing-service-reviews) and the Independent Book Publishers Association Advocacy Committee’s list of nine criteria on what it means to be a professional hybrid publisher (ibpa-online.org/page/hybridpublisher).
Self-published books suffer from a credibility problem.
Many self-published authors often publish professionally edited and designed books, but have trouble garnering the attention of readers and retailers because their publishing imprint has no history, built-in credibility, or reputation.
Many book retailers cite a “no self-published” rule and even put this rule on the front page of their websites. This rule was adopted in many cases because the store lost money stocking poorly published books, just to see them languish on the shelves. After their customers rejected these books, many stores stopped carrying them altogether.
Pro Tip: Build your credibility and reader base with consistent outreach. Approach established book reviewers, but don’t forget to keep asking for reviews from your readers as well. Researching book reviewers and requesting reader reviews is a practice that should continue for the life of a book.
Another Pro Tip: Many authors ask their friends and fans to write reviews for their books on the sites such as Amazon where their books are sold, but forget that writing even a few short lines does not come naturally for everyone. Posting a review is hard for many people because they don’t know what to say. Some authors offer suggested review text or sample sentences, but writing a suggested or sample review for people you know is not the answer. Authors can not build a good reputation from reviews if they supply the words. It is better to ask your readers thought-provoking questions that get the review ball rolling.
For instance: “How did you feel when you started reading the book versus when you finished the book?” This question gives direction without putting words in anyone’s mouth. Simply pasting this answer into an online review box would be the start of a great review. Another question might be: “What are your other favorite books that this book reminded you of?” Come up with your own thought-provoking questions. By growing your reader reviews and giving your fans a starting place, you will have a better chance of being discovered and trusted by new readers.
A book with many media or trade industry reviews will have a much better reception from booksellers, librarians, and the market.
According to the American Library Association, the first criteria librarians look for when considering a book for their collection are the number and quality of reviews. Publishers submitting new books to Barnes & Noble are required to fill out sheets that ask for professional and trade reviews.
Pro Tip: Once you have properly published a book, get your book covered by professional, uncompensated, industry sources. Share this press with local bookbuyers and librarians. This will go a long way to show a retailer (or librarian) that your book can be trusted.
Many media and industry review departments state that they do not review self-published books, but that is not true in practice. Reviews of first-time authors who have published their own books appear in newspapers and industry journals every week. The focus of the warnings seem to be on books published by large co-publishing companies known for less-than-professional books (as outlined in Truth #2).
Here’s a starter list of these independent, credible review sources:
- Library Journal—libraryjournal.com/?page=Review-Submissions
- Publishers Weekly—publishersweekly.com/pw/corp/submissionguidelines.html
- Los Angeles Review of Books—lareviewofbooks.org/about/contact
- Foreword Reviews—publishers.forewordreviews.com
- The New York Review of Books—nybooks.com/about/faq(click on Editorial)
- The New York Times Book Review—nytimes.com/content/help/site/books/books.html
- American Book Review—americanbookreview.org/FAQ.asp
- The Washington Post—helpcenter.washingtonpost.com/hc/en-us/articles/115006746348-How-to-submit-a-book-for-review
- Rain Taxi—raintaxi.com/submitadvertise/rain-taxi-submission-guidelines/
- Compulsive Reader—compulsivereader.com/submissions/
- The Horn Book Inc.— hbook.com/?detailStory=submissions
- School Library Journal—slj.com/?page=review-submissions
- Midwest Book Review—midwestbookreview.com/get_rev.htm
Other authors are not your competition; they are your community.
Too often, authors think of their fellow authors as competition. Sometimes, authors forget that avid readers read tons of books. There is always room for a new author or series once a reader finishes their current book. Successful authors in your genre are also your brethren. Embrace them and build relationships within your community.
Pro Tip: Find the bestselling authors in your genre and follow them on social media. Read their books and help where you can. Enjoy getting to know their readers. Authors can do so much for each other if they put aside the crazy idea that “it’s either them or me.”
Write reviews and post in your author newsletter about the authors you truly admire; start building friendships. Soon, you will have a large, supportive group of authors ready to do the same for you because they genuinely want to help a fellow author. Offer to be a beta reader and cross-post for your favorite authors on their launch days.
THE WHOLE TRUTH
You must keep writing and try everything you can think of (shy of paying for or swapping reviews) to build buzz about your books. I wish there were a magic “hack” I could offer to leapfrog your way to success in self-publishing. But it takes talent, time, and integrity. Don’t squander any of those by trying a shortcut. Authors who want to build successful careers know shortcuts don’t work. What works is an attitude of helpfulness, open-mindedness, staying teachable, continually improving your craft, engaging with readers and fellow authors, and making every decision with the following question in mind: What would be best for my readers?If you answer that question honestly at every crossroad, you will find yourself moving ahead at every turn.
Check out our interview with Amy Collins to learn more about Indie publishing and working with small presses.