Thinking of Self-Publishing? Five things I’ve learnt as an Indie Editor
by Tessa Shapcott
Former Harlequin Executive Editor Tessa Shapcott offers some great advice to anyone who might be interested in going it alone.
For the last six months, I’ve been working with authors who’ve decided to either self-publish, or go Indie with online start-ups (such as Tule Publishing, where I am working part-time as senior editor of the Montana Born imprint). I’m finding being in the independent publishing sector so exciting, refreshing and rewarding! I am getting the chance to collaborate with all kinds of writers: some are already published by traditional means, but want a taste of freedom and the chance to spread their wings and manage their own destinies creatively, financially and marketing-wise; others are aspiring writers who just want to get their stuff out there; many are talented, but their content isn’t fitting traditional publishers’ parameters right now. And then there’s the appeal of being able to publish quickly and harness reader buy-in. (Traditional publishers take note!)
It’s been a steep learning curve for me. I come with thirty years’ experience in the publishing industry and that, of course, is really useful. But the Indie market is a different beast, which requires some new approaches and thinking, and I’ve had to do some adjusting. Maybe you are thinking you’d like to strike out and go it alone as a self-publisher, but are feeling a little daunted or nervous? Or you’ve already taken the leap and are wanting to see results? I don’t claim to know everything there is to know yet, but I’d like to share some key learnings that I’ve made so far on my journey into self-publishing online, as an Indie editor.
· If you’re considering going it alone, don’t get carried away! Steel yourself to work hard and be a multi-tasker! Also, prepare for some financial outlay. It can be exhilarating to think that you’ll be able to by-pass all those frustrations you’ve encountered while publishing with or submitting to traditional houses. But you will need to be ruthless, savvy and very, very, organised to succeed. Work out if your motivations for doing it yourself outweigh having to bear the costs and sort out the editing, formatting, cover design and marketing. How much energy will you have left for actual writing?
If you’re not sure you can or want to handle all parts of the process, consider some alternatives. Can you afford a budget that allows you to buy in some services, such as cover design and marketing? Or, perhaps the halfway-house of finding an Indie online publisher would be a better solution? With most Indies, you’ll find a greater degree of creative freedom and a chance to have input in your covers, while they take care of distribution, marketing and translation. There’s also the alternative of the Amazon White Glove program, whereby you can work with an agent to self-publish; Amazon and the agent take their cut, and you will bear the expenses of self-publication, but there is still a fairly generous percentage for the author to earn.
· You may be better placed to re-publish your backlist and get the most out of it, than a traditional publisher. It won’t make me popular to say this, but if a traditional house does hold your backlist, check whether it is just plonking it out there with a mass of other content, with old or cheap, basic covers, or if it has a strategic publishing and marketing plan for you and your titles. From what I’m seeing, especially when it comes to genre fiction, some authors are doing better by getting their rights back and re-publishing themselves. You can completely re-invent those older books of yours, by creating whizzy new covers, by publishing multiple titles at regular intervals to target reader interest and capitalise on velocity—and you can get texts re-edited to bring them up-to-date and present your work to a whole new generation.
· Whether you are already published, or aspiring, you need an editor! Lest this statement smacks of self-interest, let me add that editors come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. You can hire someone like me who is an alpha editor: we offer years of experience and of honing our craft. We are also very useful when it comes to making your work competitive and professionally presented. At the very least, consider finding a line or copy-editor who can iron out all those little niggles and spelling, punctuation and grammar errors. Consumers are very intolerant of poorly-presented books.
Or you can get yourself a beta-reader. A number of writers that I work with have teams of critique partners, often writers themselves and gleaned from online writing communities and forums, who have editing skills and are more than happy offer feedback or do proof-reading. If you’ve yet to be published, this might involve some kind of critique exchange.
· Your books need really great titles! I am meeting published writers whose sole motivation to go Indie is that they disagree with how their publisher packages their novels. Fair enough, I understand--I was a prime offender in my previous life! But traditional publishers do know something about how to make a book stand out and compel readers to buy and, in my view, quite a few self-published authors are failing because they are not able to replicate this. If you do your own thing, you will need to develop a similarly objective view of your novel and be able to look at it from the outside in. The title which seems so right to you, because it suits the book and the characters, may well mean nothing to the consumer who is coming to it cold and won’t have the kind of appeal that generates sales. Choose something that captures the flavour and beckons with promises of excitement, drama and surprise. It’s the one of the biggest marketing tools you can have.
· The more you have books out, the more you sell. Self-published books rely very much on velocity of sales on initial release. There are things you can do yourself to help insure your publications against a damp squib of a launch: for example, word of mouth marketing is crucial, so you’ll get a better result by being your own self-publicist, building an author platform and growing your following before you release your title. Many of you will be on writers’ loops, in writing chapters or groups, so use these as your starting base to generate interest (and expect to return the favour for other members). Employ social media and blogging to develop your profile. Check out what the online sites that you have chosen to self-publish with can do for you marketing and PR-wise. And do get your book reviewed as much as possible; for instance you can link with Amazon, send out free copies and ask for feedback, and also build relationships with sites that review self-published titles, such as Goodreads.com. A canny pricing strategy is worth its weight in gold too.
But to truly profit in the self-publishing arena, the evidence is that you must have a programme of content to release at regular, frequent intervals; consumers read a book, like it and start searching for more to prolong the experience. If you can, devise a series of novels built around core elements or characters and a plan for their swift execution and publication to give yourself an advantage. At the very least, investigate ways to follow-up your first release quickly—for example, stories of varying lengths (novellas are very useful in this respect) can support you in meeting this goal.
It is tough. However, if you’re ready to fly solo, there is immense satisfaction to be in stretching yourself as a writer, and managing all aspects of the publishing process yourself. And if you’ve already taken flight, do let me know what you’ve discovered during your big adventure. I’d love to hear from you!
Tessa Shapcott is a freelance editor, consultant and writer. She can be contacted at tessashapcott.com, or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tessa is also senior editor for the Montana Born line at Tule Publishing.com