Saturday, June 4, 2011

9 Rules for Not Sucking at Self-Publishing

To my fellow self-publishing writer peeps:

There's a publishing person out on the Inter-tubes who doesn’t think too much of the self-publishing revolution. Actually, there are probably a shit-ton of people who think this, but I'm thinking about one in particular. Not to put too fine a point on it -- he thinks self-published books suck. Obviously, he hasn’t read every single self-published book out there, so my guess is that he's seen enough to conclude that it’s not worth trying to find the diamonds in the morass of suckiness.

Often, I want to respond snarkily to him, but I do not.

Because in far too many cases, he is right.

The only thing we, as self-published writers, can and should do is this: Make damn sure our self-published books don't suck.

But making sure your self-published book doesn’t suck is hard work.

You must keep in mind that as soon as your book goes live, it will be competing against regularly-published books AND self-published books that have been professionally edited and formatted. You are in the big leagues whether you like it or not, and you will be eaten alive if you’re not bringing your very, very best game. 

And having lived and breathed it for the last two months, here are some things that I think it takes to not suck at self-publishing.

1. If you've queried a book (and if you're still reading this post, there's about a 1 million percent chance you've sent a query letter, will send one, or have thought about sending one) and gotten nothing but form rejections, don’t self-publish it. Somewhere along the line, you really need to have gotten some positive professional feedback, even if the agent (or publisher) ultimately passed. Feedback from someone who knows the business and has no reason to blow smoke up your nether regions other than for your writing's praiseworthiness. If you haven't, go on and write something else. 

My first manuscript, written in 2002, was an aromatic and steaming pile of crap, and I had the form rejections to prove it. If this self-publishing revolution had been around back then, I probably would’ve rushed it into an eBook format, and it would have been a gigantic mistake. Every writer matures at their own rate -- it took me three manuscripts to write something I believed was worthy of publication. 

2. If you haven’t read your manuscript at least 30 times with the cold-blooded eye of your worst enemy, don’t self-publish it. You must be beyond merciless with your work. Because if you’re not, someone else will be.

3. If you haven’t hired a freelance editor to thoroughly review your book, don’t self-publish it. I fancy myself a grammar ninja, slashing through the tender torso of you/you’re and its/it’s with my sword. I was amazed by some of the stuff I had missed.

4. If you haven’t hired a professional cover designer, don’t self-publish it. Look at the Kindle bestseller list, especially at the books priced at $2.99 or less. See any homemade-looking covers there?

5. If you haven’t hired an e-book formatter, don’t self-publish it. You trust Amazon’s formatting servers? Upload a Word document to your Kindle. Let me know how that goes for you. Your book's formatting had better look exactly like every book Random House publishes. 

6. If you haven’t read and carefully studied a book on the craft of writing, don’t self-publish it.  Before it becomes art, writing is a craft, and there are rules. Every single person in every single profession learns their craft before they try to compete with the professionals. The fact that you don't have to go through the query process anymore makes this no less true for writers pursuing self-publication. 

7. If you haven’t read dozens of novels in your chosen genre, don’t self-publish it. How can you write a good book if you don't know what came before? 

8. If you think anyone is going to cut you slack because you’re pricing your book at 99 cents, don’t self-publish it. Readers are going to expect your book to be as professionally done as the New York Times bestsellers. They're not just giving you 99 cents. They're giving you a couple dozen very valuable hours of their lives.  And you may get them the first time -- but if you let them down with some amateur work, it will be the last 99 cents you see from them. 

9. If your villain is a corrupt U.S. Senator, don’t self-publish it. Aw, shit. I just revealed the villain in my first book. Lucky for me, it sucks so exquisitely no one will ever see it. I didn't even tell you the best part! About 250 pages into the manuscript, I was running out of shit to write, so I introduced a secret group of CIA guys. 

The reason I think these guidelines are important is because they let you focus on putting out the very best product possible. 

Oh, and here’s a little secret. YOU'RE GOING TO HAVE TO INVEST SOME MONEY IN THIS. There is something you need to do for your book that you CANNOT do by yourself, be it line-editing, content editing, cover design, formatting, something. You will need to pay someone to do it so it looks professional.

This is a business, just like selling rubber bands is a business or cleaning houses is a business. Guess what? Rubber-band sellers and housecleaners invest money in their businesses. They spend money in the hope of making more money.

Why do writers often think they’re somehow exempt from this reality of business? Because they're artists? I hate to burst your delicate little bubble, but you stopped being an artist the moment you decided you wanted someone to pay you for your work. Your book might be the most lyrical thing since Ini Kamoze’s Lyrical Gangsta, but you’re still trying to hawk it like a plastic bottle of Bud Light at a minor-league baseball stadium. Would you buy the bottle if it was leaky, warm, and sporting a giant yellow-green boogie on the side? As I prepared to self-publish, I downloaded a bunch of self-pubbed stuff to see what was out there, and that’s EXACTLY what many of those samples are – leaky, warm, and boogin’ out.

And I’m not talking a huge outlay of cash here. I spent $400 on a cover, content editing, and eBook formatting. This is a drop in the bucket of money I hope to make.

But I am talking about a huge outlay of work. When I fired up the self-publishing engines in March, I had a pretty complete manuscript on my hands. No major plot holes, no continuity issues, no real typos. And I still spent another 200 hours on it. Several hours a day for two months. Because I knew it was all on me. If I want to take on J.A. Konrath and John Grisham and Brad Meltzer and Lisa Scottoline and the other thriller writers, I had damn well be better than them. Not as good as them. Better.

If you’re willing to do these things, then you may find the experience as rewarding as I did. And who knows, maybe you'll be the next Kindle bestseller. At the very least, your book will not suck. And we can give this doubting Thomas -- all these doubting Thomases -- the big ole' middle finger of awesomeness. 

Good luck. Work hard. And if you've got other rules for Not Sucking at Self-Publishing, leave them in the comments.


  1. Hi, David!

    You had me at Number One; but stopped me at Number Four.

    As a PubCoach for self-publish authors, I sometimes have to BEG writers not to PowerPoint their way into author-oblivion. But, oh no, some authors believe they are as good a graphic artist as they are a writer.

    Take it from someone who tries everything! The titles that are homemade - LOOK're not fooling anyone once your stick-person book cover is set up against a Simon & Schuster or Hachette book cover.

    If your writing is good to be published, it DESERVES a solid-seller book cover. Put yourself out there...take the risk...invest in a professionally designed book cover!

    Any IndieAuthor can point you to their stable of artists - afterall - we're hoping for YOUR success, too!

  2. AMEN! Not to put down self-publishers, but there's a reason I've yet to put my foot in that ring. It's a lot of work, it's time consuming and as you pointed out, you have to invest in yourself/work, cold hard cash. Often it's not that the story its self has issues, more that there are errors in formatting, punctuation/spelling/word choice, and as you said, there's a lot to catching the eye with cover art. Glad you posted this. More power and success to those who have gone where I've not yet dared, but I'll be waiting and querying the traditional route a while longer before I step foot in the other world.

  3. Ha, you're going to hate me, but I broke every one of your rules...except for #9...and made it on the NYT's best seller ebook list selling over 100,000 copies. But I will say I had friends help with the editing (I'll admit it's not perfect though) and I dabble in graphic design myself and know how to use Adobe Illustrator, so I'm sort of decent with making book covers.

    In general, I do agree with most of these rules, even if I'm lame and broke them.


  4. @Emily - indeed the cover is really important. Often, not always, but often, the quality of a cover is a good indicator of the book's merits.

    @Lori - just make sure you don't close off a potentially good option for yourself. It was a ton of work, but well worth it to me. Even if I've just started.

    @Victorine - of course, there are exceptions to everything - and I'll cut you a break - i discovered your blog when i was thinking about making this leap, and your posts helped me make the decision to go for it. So you get off with a warning for your rule-breaking ... THIS TIME... :-)

    Thanks to all for your comments.

  5. While I agree in theory, those are not hard and fast rules. I've broken at least half of them. I didn't hire anyone to do anything with my book. I had a lot of help, mind you, like cover art, and beta reading, proof readers, etc, but those roles were filled by other writers and readers with excellent proofing skills.

    I'm not doing too badly. In fact, today is my book's 1st Birthday!

  6. @MP - thanks for the comment - it still sounds like you stuck close to most of these rules and worked super hard, even if you didn't pay $ to have it done. And think how much better off self-publishing would be if people followed these rules. Im sure youd agree that there's nothing particularly earthshattering about my list- I just thought it was important for people to understand how competitive the business is, how much work it is.

    And congrats on your book's 1st birthday!

  7. Whew, so glad I just got a warning! :) I'll try to be better next time. ;)

    And I'm so glad my blog helped you decide to go indie. I love hearing that!

    @MP - Ha! Not doing too badly. I'd say not! #15 right now. You're totally rockin it, girl!

  8. The great thing about self-publishing is that you don't have to follow rules.

    I have self-published five books since March, 2011, and I have sold over 14,000 books.

    Keep up the good work, Victorine. I've enjoyed your blog, too. And Happy Anniversary to MP!

  9. Thanks for posting this, David--and happy anniversary to your blog. I'm working on the first book I intend to publish at the moment, so your post couldn't have come at a better time. I'm still trying to size up if I'm going to go the indie route or the legacy route, so this has help put my options in stark relief.

    I believe that in addition to readers being the new gatekeepers, that indie writers themselves are also the new gatekeepers, because only they/we have the power to pressure all indies to adhere to some basic level of presentation re: their books. Good job and thanks again!

  10. Chris -- good point about the fact that writers are also gatekeepers. I really can't control whether someone buys my book, but I can make it look really good, and make sure it can compete with the big kids.

    Glad you enjoyed the post!

  11. Sorry to come late to the party, but I agree - in principle - with most of these rules. On the one hand, I can see how relevant following these prescribed rules would be if making the most amount of money from your work is the most important thing. On the other hand, some self-published writers are content to put their work our there without the benefit of a professional cover design. Take my book, for example. I designed the cover myself and it probably shows. But the writing inside is top-notch (or at least the best that I can muster) and anyone who has read it has not been disappointed.

    But yes, for most people out there wanting to take on the legacy publishers, your rules make a ton of sense. No one should take a few hours of figure skating lessons and then jump in the ring with Nancy Kerrigan! Writing is no different in most respects. Unless you just don't care if you make a ton of money or not.