Self-publishing is something many writers consider. It’s a way to get your book on the market and have control over its design, marketing and overall image. But, is self-publishing as good as it sounds?
Julie Kirk tells us about her self-publishing experience and offers five handy tips if you’re considering self-publishing your own work.
If you’re currently considering self-publishing then, hey, pleased to meet you. You’re me from 12 months ago, and I could be you from this time next year!
A lot has happened since May 2016, when I decided to self-publish Snipped Tales, a printed book of my text-collage micro-fiction (I know. It sounds like a niche within a niche but the stories themselves are universal.) And now, one year down the line of: preparing, editing, contract-signing, artwork commissioning, book blurb writing, waiting, some more waiting, photographing the finished book, selling online, posting out to readers across four continents and having one of my favourite authors offer me a quote to use in my promotional material, I’m now ready to write a few hints and tips for you in the dust that’s settled.
So, here are five lessons I learned from the self-publishing process, I hope you’ll find something useful among them.
Lesson 1. Have a clear idea of what you want the finished book to feel like … or someone else will.
This process starts and ends with a book; beginning with your own urge to create one, then ending with a reader – who you’ll never meet – holding it in their hands. And that book is only going to have one name on the cover: yours. (Unless you recruit a talented friend to illustrate it like I did, and then, for the sake of professionalism and your friendship, you really ought to be putting her name on it too!). So, as you’re putting in the time, emotion, creativity and finances to realise your book dream, the end result has got to feel like it belongs to you.
Listening to technical or editorial advice is sensible, and I would even suggest that paying for the services of one or two professionals is essential for a high-quality product. (e.g. I paid an indie-publishing company to scan all the images for my book, format the layout, create a cover based on my design plan, and arrange printing, all of which saved me so much strain!).
However, other people’s contributions have their limit.
If you’re going to ask for external help and/or opinions make sure to first have a firm idea of what it is you want; and be prepared to stay true to that vision even after well-meaning people have offered their ‘suggestions’.
After you’ve completed your manuscript, but before you begin the practical publishing aspects, focus on discovering how you want the book to feel; remember you’re starting from scratch here, and you’re the boss of your brand. You get to choose exactly what you want!
- Write down the emotions and responses you want to create for your reader and keep referring to them throughout, checking you’re tailoring everything to that end goal.
- Create secret Pinterest boards for book cover ideas; these can be, but don’t need to be, images of actual book covers. My cover was inspired, in part, by a particularly lovely tea-towel and the end credits of a movie!
- Have a general idea of where your book will sit in the market and what kind of people your readers might be; who will enjoy it? Who will thank their lucky stars they found you? Keep them in mind!
- Similarly, make a note of all the things you don’t want the book to be, those things the book is definitely not; and hold on to these things when the doubts kick in!
It’s your book, and no matter how terrified you might feel when deciding what goes into the final draft, the look of the cover, or the tone of the blurb, you owe it to yourself to produce something that closely reflects you and your content.
And speaking of decision-making…
Lesson 2. There are no right or wrong decisions…and that’s the problem!
Much like building a house from scratch* self-publishing involves far more decision making that you’re expecting. (*I’ve never built a house from scratch, but I’ve seen enough episodes of Grand Designs to feel confident in the analogy!)
The upside of self-publishing – especially if you’re the kind of person who likes control over their output – is that you get to make all the decisions. The downside … is that you get to make all the decisions!
What size do you want? Have you got an ISBN? What colour paper? Hardcover or paperback? Matte or shiny? Which fonts? Where are your page numbers going? Top, bottom, middle? And how about the price? Can you charge enough to cover costs and make a profit? What are readers willing to pay? Do you want the price printed on the cover? And, one last, but vital thing … just how many are you going to print? How many can you find room for at home if no one buys ANY?* (*No one outside of my own head actually asked this last one!)
It’s a lot. I know. Enough to make you break down in tears while cooking tea and simultaneously trying to work out the best price to charge and how many to print for optimised profits.
Fortunately, none of the decisions you’ll be faced with, even the crying-in-the-kitchen ones, are insurmountable. You just need to make the best go of it you can, one question at a time. And, contrary to how you will feel during it all, there aren’t Self-Publishing Police waiting to arrest you for making the wrong choice.
Top tip! If you are clear from the start about WHY you want to put your book into the world then, no matter the reason, that clarity will guide your decisions. Mid profit-margin-meltdown my partner made me remind him of my main goal: “To get my book in the hands of the people who might need it”. And, suddenly, that was that, fiddly finances be damned, they weren’t my principle motivator, and the decision was made.
Not that you shouldn’t do some sensible accounting…
Lesson 3. Try to gauge the level of interest in your book before deciding on a print run.
Putting out a few feelers, (perhaps on a blog, social media, within networking groups), can give you an idea of what level of support you can expect once you publish.
Share a little about what the reader can expect, e.g. a glimpse of the cover design, an extract, the blurb, then just ask: “Is this something you would consider buying?” And while no one’s under any obligation to buy a book (unless you’re really organised and offer a pre-order function), it will give you a base number to begin with.
Not that you should only print the amount you know you can definitely sell. You’ll need some additional copies in order to:
- Leave something to chance. Who knows how your sales might take off once word-of-mouth kicks in?
- Have copies to offer as prizes in promotional give-aways, or to reviewers/book bloggers, and to give as gifts.
- And you’ll need copies if you decide to sell via bricks and mortar shops, or book events, workshops and signings, as well as online.
Plus, there may be financial incentives to print a larger number, e.g. due to scaling prices the more I had printed the cheaper the individual unit price became, and with that in mind I ordered five times the amount I knew I could sell. Thanks to the support of my blog readers, Etsy shop customers, and friends, sales hit that (modest) base figure within 5 days of release (in December 2016) and the remainder have been slowly but surely wending their way into new hands ever since.
So, by gauging your market before committing to numbers you can definitely modify the financial risks, (at least for printed books vs the relatively lower costs for ebooks), but remember … it’s still a risk …
Lesson 4. Before making a final decision on what, how, and how many to print, work out what you can afford to lose.
By the time you’re holding your beautiful printed book in your hands you might have paid out for things like: editing, design, illustrations, printing, even a website and promotional materials … all with no guarantee that you will sell a single copy. And if that happened, could you absorb the costs and move on?
Of course, not selling a single copy is highly unlikely (if that was the case you’d really have to reconsider who you called ‘friends’!) but it’s a ‘worst case scenario’ worth considering. I did, and here I am, a year on, with no regrets, despite not yet having made a profit! (Don’t let that put you off though, my book was expensive to print, as it’s a collection of full-colour photos. And if I’m ever in the position to publish something that only requires printed text on regular paper … I won’t think twice!)
Ultimately, I did have the savings to pay for it, and publishing Snipped Tales was a gift I gave myself in my 40th year. As of now, it’s no great investment for my future but, honestly, how many things we spend money on are? Plus, when you publish a book your money buys so much more than a pile of books.
- It offers the chance to see your work in print – a life-long dream for many of us.
- It gifts you the experience of the book-making process. Some people would spend the amount on a trip abroad, or a wild adventure, while some of us just really like books!
- It connects you with readers and can be hugely satisfying knowing your work is being enjoyed by others. (The messages I receive about how particular tales have lifted someone’s day are worth far more than profit).
- Done well, a book can validate you as an expert in your topic. e.g. If I ever offer workshops based on my text-collage techniques, having a book as evidence of my experience in the field might be a useful selling point.
If you can afford the initial investment, and have the confidence in your product to see the process through, you’ll discover additional rewards associated with self-publishing that you can’t capture on a spreadsheet.
Lesson 5. Expect to encounter both perfectionism…and imperfections.
Are you a perfectionist? Or maybe a lapsed one (like I was)? If so, then I’m glad we’re meeting now because, at least I get to forewarn you that some aspects of self-publishing are going to be tricky.
Before I began I’d have said I’d grown out of my perfectionist tendencies, that I was more sanguine and easy going these days. But then, that was in a time before I’d decided to follow a life-long dream of writing a book. Turns out my perfectionist streak was simply lying dormant until I was ready to get to work on publishing something incredibly important to me!
Of course, perfectionism is a double edged sword:
- It’s an excellent motivator; revealing how much the project means to you; spurring you on to make the very best book you can.
- But it can also be incapacitating; slowing down your decision-making making; setting you up for disappointments if/when not everything turns out exactly as you had envisioned it.
And if you’re going to involve other people in the process, you’re going to have to learn to juggle your desire for perfection, with the practicalities of working with someone else.
e.g. I worked with a local indie-publisher therefore I couldn’t have (and didn’t really want) complete control over everything. Having never commissioned services before I found balancing explaining what I had in mind, with waiting for it to be put into practice, then asking for changes afterwards, a steep learning curve!
It’s not always straightforward but it is possible to stay true to your vision (Lesson 1!), while remaining flexible to other people’s valuable contributions. You need to realistically accept hiccups along the way; eg. delays, crossed-wires, differing expectations because, what are you going to do?
Short of setting up a printing press in your garden shed there’s no way around the fact that you are reliant on others (but, hey, if you do set up that press, I’d love a guided tour). At some point, you have to hand it over; let go, trust you’ve done enough, hit ‘Send’, sign off on the final draft and accept that every little detail may not necessarily be ‘perfect’.
I can almost guarantee that, by the time you’re holding your book in your hands for the first time, (even if that’s in an Aldi car park like mine was; such romance), then you’ll forget about all the pain you went through to get there, and you won’t care if it’s 100% perfect or not, just that it’s there, and that you’ll never have to do it again. (Until the next time … ) And once you’re holding it you’ll still have no time for perfectionism as you’ll be getting it ready to sell, taking photos of it, writing a product description, driving all your social media followers mad with how often you link to your sales page!
But – if you’re going to insist on expressing your perfectionism – then make it this: Be perfect at confidently promoting your book!
When you’ve created something you’re proud of, that you know people want, that looks as professional as anything you’d see in a major book shop then why would you feel shy about getting it into a reader’s hands?
Trust me, they will thank you for it. They will tell you things like how it’s what they needed to see that morning, or that months down the line they’re still dipping in and out of it, or that they really want to be Margot when they grow up (OK, that last one might just be very specific to page 15 of my book, but, honestly #everybodylovesmargot). And no one would have met her (and her rabble-rousing ways) if I had been shy about promoting my book.
So, allow me to take advantage of this perfect opportunity to tell you that my book, Snipped Tales, can be found in my ‘Julie Kirk’ Etsy shop https://www.etsy.com/uk/shop/JulieKirk and I’ll be delighted to pass a copy from my hands into yours.
And, if you had been thinking about self-publishing before you read this post, I hope the five lessons I learned from self-publishing have given you a renewed belief that – you know what? – all this is infinitely possible!
To keep in touch, visit my website withjuliekirk.com or find me on Instagram @withjuliekirk where I share some of my #snippedtales style stories and where I procrastinate while I meant to be writing my first novel.