There are days I see the benefits of going with the traditional publishing route. When you are signed on with a publisher, they provide some of the hard work it takes to make a manuscript into a polished and publishable product. From editors to formatters to cover artists to distribution, these publishers have the resources to help an author be successful. But what about the self-published author? One of the common misconceptions about being an author (especially a self-published one) is that we only have to write. In reality, a self-published author needs to perform the entirety of the publishing process by themselves. Now, you may be asking yourself, “OK, you have to do it all, but what does that even mean?” Let’s start at the beginning of the process, and I’ll walk you through it.
If you want to self-publish, you have many jobs to do.
Many of the most famous authors have a research department (or person). These are the people who dig up facts and do “reality checks” to make sure a manuscript is not only accurate but realistic. A self-published author needs to do all that legwork themselves. Granted, the internet has made this task somewhat easier, and the “planning / outlining” phase of the process usually involves a good amount of research, but the end of the matter is that the self-published author has the burden of this investigation upon their shoulders.
When it comes to the actual writing of the manuscript, the self-published author usually has less stress because of one major difference: there is no deadline. Of course, this also has another effect: with no time limit, there’s no impetus to finish the manuscript. How many people do you know have started writing the “great American novel” only to fizzle out in a few weeks or months? Because a publishing house needs to have a regular schedule of released material, they impose deadlines on their writers so the rest of the process these authors don’t do can happen and the publishers can continue to remain relevant. The self-published author needs to be just as prolific as the traditionally-published authors, if not more so. The moment you don’t have any new content, you start to lose relevance, also losing potential repeat customers in the process.
One of the largest cruxes in self-publishing is the editing phase. While the publishing house will have a style guide and editors to conform their authors’ manuscripts to this standard, the self-published author is largely on their own. I spend probably the majority of my time editing my writing, mostly because I’ve become such a fast writer that I need the extra time polishing the manuscript to make sure there aren’t the typical proofreading errors that would cause a reader to stop reading my work. While a self-published author needs to be a good editor of their work, I would highly suggest hiring an editor. This facet of the writing process is one of the best-justified expenses for the self-published author. The money you spend will be worth it in the long run.
Of course, having a well-written and well-edited manuscript means nothing when your formatting is poor. Again, the publishing houses will have styles and standards that help keep their products looking sharp and professional. I’ve found simple things like using justify align, indenting the first line of a paragraph, and having a readable font are often missed by self-published authors and thus make their work seem amateur and unprofessional. If you need inspiration on how to correctly format the interior of your book, pick up one of your favorites from a famous, traditionally-published author and flip through it, taking care to see how each page appears. If you can format your book to look that way as well, you’re well on your way to having a professional-looking book on your hands.
As I’ve mentioned in my vlog, Writer Rant, most people will judge a book by its cover. And while I’ve used cover creators for my first three books, I’ve since increased my skill set to include cover design as well. This part of the process is another case, as it was with the editor, where hiring a cover artist can dramatically improve your book. The more your book can stand out and convey which genre it’s in and what it’s about, the better it is likely to do concerning sales. Also, remember to keep it simple. Too much on the cover can turn potential readers away as well.
The two biggest things the publishing houses give an author are distribution and marketing. These are the two toughest elements of the writing process for a self-published author. While I would encourage getting your book into as many formats as possible (i.e. paperback, e-book, hardcover, and audiobook), each one of them can take extra time depending on how well an author knows how to massage their work into the various formats. The more formats out there for a particular work, the more chances it’ll be bought by someone who exclusively uses a single format to read books. Depending on how you choose to self-publish, a lot of distribution channels are open to you, except for mainstream bookstores. Publishing houses still have that edge, but the self-published author still has the vast resource of the internet to distribute their work electronically.
While some of the marketing of a traditionally-published author falls on their shoulders, it wholly falls on the shoulders of the self-published author. From social media presence to regular web content (like this blog post), often these marketing efforts take away from the time normally spent writing or editing. Finding the balance between marketing and writing is a challenge, especially for the self-published author who wants to be “discovered.” The world of words is so oversaturated right now that it has become difficult to differentiate yourself amongst the horde of other authors putting out works of their own. Authors who have found their marketing identity and brand tend to be more successful, so make sure you have a marketing focus.
It takes A LOT of work to self-publish.
As you can see, it takes A LOT of work to be a self-published author. There are some ways to help with this burden, including “hiring” friends and family to help with the editing, formatting, and marketing. If you know a self-published author and want to help them out, I doubt they would turn you away. Just realize that, if you ask them why their books are so expensive, you now know how much goes into publishing their book (and how many jobs they need to perform to do it). Let’s not forget to mention the fact that they still only get a fraction of the sale price (due to the distribution channels they choose). The authors who try and do this for a living certainly have my respect, as I couldn’t cut it right now.
Finally, know that not all self-published authors will perform all of these steps to the best of their ability. Perhaps they’re excellent at research, but not so good at writing or editing. Or maybe they’re good at writing, but not marketing or distribution. The truly successful self-published author is a master of everything. Unfortunately, these self-published authors are somewhat rare. Because the ease of access into having a published work is now so easy (and virtually free), there is a lot of garbage that floods the system. If you find a self-published author you like and who presents a professional product, let them know it by leaving reviews of their books on Goodreads and Amazon. Sometimes these kind words from a stranger are what makes this whole process worth it.