My Self-Publishing Journey

I published my first novel on Amazon Kindle at Christmas time. This was the culmination of about five years’ work at some financial cost.

Most aspiring authors want to know how to get published, make money so they can live in the south of France or a tropical paradise and write books while sipping on margaritas. Hey, I’ll put my hand up for that!

Everyone should know that there’s a lot more to this game than that! I’m going to take you through the main steps of publishing a book, show the differences between commercial publishing and self-publishing, and look at the financial aspects – how much it costs and how much you can make. I want to inspire you to keep aiming for your dream.

For the purpose of this article, I’ll talk about novels. A novel is generally defined as a fictional story of about 70-100,000 words.

From idea to publisher

Here are the usual 10 steps from idea to publication:

1. You first need an idea for a story. Inspiration is everywhere. And it’s very personal. You can get ideas from your own life, or your family and extended family. Think of events in your life or your parents’ lives that were interesting or unusual, and create a ‘what if’ scenario.

2. Writing is a lot more than putting words on a page. With fiction it is creating a story with characters, a plot, beginning, middle, end, climax, resolution and much more. The key to writing fiction is to ‘show not tell’ the story. For example: He was an old man. V. He was hunched and frail, his face lined with wrinkles.

3. Find a mentor/developmental editor/writing group/course to help you write and stick to a word count per week or month. Getting a first draft is the goal. Your writing group or mentor can help read your work, review, comment and edit.

4. Once you have your fist draft, you can start self-editing and rewriting. For me, this is the hard part. It’s best to leave the work alone for a time to get distance from it. Go back and read it with new eyes. If you’re an editor as well as a writer – the more time you leave it the better. You can then view it as someone else’s work and be unemotional in your editing. You can delete the many redundancies, repetitive words or scenes, delete adjectives and adverbs (thats) and words that do not serve the story or move it forward. You will add details where necessary. Be ruthless with tightening your writing –if it doesn’t add to the story, it has to go.

5. Once you’ve done this a few times, it’s time to send it out to some intelligent readers. These can be friends or colleagues and associates who love reading and have a critical eye. It’s probably best to avoid family as they will tell you it’s wonderful no matter what! Take your readers’ feedback on board as much as possible and rewrite again.

6. Once you are happy with it, you can start preparing for publication. Find a manuscript assessor. They will advise on structure, characters, story, plot development, language, writing skills and all the big picture features. They generally give a report but do not mark up the manuscript. Take their feedback on board and rewrite again.

7. You are now ready to have your manuscript edited by a professional editor. The editor will advise on the same things as the assessor. The difference is that the editor will do a line edit/copy edit as well as a substantive/structural edit. The editor will comment on the use of language, copyright, defamation, fact-checking, double check research, authenticity of setting and story, timelines and character development, and give considered opinions on all aspects of the book. There may be several toings and froings at this stage.

8. Once you have finalised the edit, you are now ready to find a literary agent. An agent will take on work that suits their list and assess the author’s ability to write a product that sells. They will tout to their networks and find a publisher. They will negotiate contracts, advances and rights. They take about 12% of recommended retail price of every book you sell. There are 15 literary agents listed on the Australian literary agent website – only some of these will be appropriate for your book. You must prepare an email pitch, then wait eight weeks for them to get back to you. They are generally not interested if you have submitted your book pitch to publishers, or to other literary agents.

9. The next step is finding a publisher. Some publishers will only accept submissions via a literary agent. For the others, you do a publisher pitch email and wait three months for them to let you know if they are interested. They don’t like authors submitting to more than one at a time. Let’s assume the literary agent finds a publisher for your book. The publisher will take over the production – editing, layout, book cover, sometimes choose the title, print run, marketing, launch, and sales to booksellers. You will still need to do some marketing yourself. They take about 45% of the sale price. After distribution, you as author get about 10%.

Now for some statistics. For 2013 in Australia:

• The main 30 big publishers released 100 books
• 100 medium-sized publishers released 20-100 books
• Nearly 30,000 books were released which includes small presses/independent publishers who may only publish one or two books a year. This means that many people are now self-publishing
• One-third of all books are now eBooks
• About 2% of all manuscripts submitted are published by traditional publishers

The figures aren’t encouraging; hence:

10. If you can’t get an agent or publisher to take on your masterpiece, you can consider self-publishing.

Why self-publish?

Twenty or so years ago, if we talked about self-publishing, it meant ‘vanity publishing’. A writer would hand the book over to a vanity press and pay for them to do minimal work on it, print it, and do some minimal marketing. Writers might also just send their book to a printer, pay the money and in return get thousands of copies of their book to store in the garage or somehow try to get bookshops to buy it. Writers, in general as most creatives, are not good at promoting themselves. Hence, the books were badly designed and edited (or not edited at all) and looked amateurish. Self-published work had a reputation for being under par and poor quality. Self-publishing had a stigma.

I believe that has changed. Of course, there are still books out there that are not well written or look amateurish in their layout and covers – both self-published and traditionally published. But print-on-demand publishing has raised the standards for most self-publishers. These companies now offer subsidiary services such as editing and cover design so the opportunity to raise the standard of these books is now available.

Many traditionally published authors or also turning to self-publishing to get higher incomes, and to be able to take total control of their product.

Using Amazon and CreateSpace

After you’ve had the book edited, you can prepare it for release on Amazon Kindle as an eBook and a pBook.

This is the process I followed:

1. Have a final Word version ready
2. Design a cover – high resolution for print/low resolution for eBook, back cover blurb, author biography
3. Get an ISBN/barcode
4. Upload pBook first to Createspace (owned by Amazon) – inside text and cover
5. Approve and release
6. Then you do the Amazon Kindle process
7. Upload inside text and low-resolution cover to Amazon
8. Start promoting the book – send emails to your network, promote on social media, send press releases to writing organisations, newspapers, magazines, blogs, online news outlets
9. Get reviews
10. Keep promoting, keep writing
11. Give presentations
12. FOREVER.

Costs to author

As a rough guide, writing and producing my book took about five years and cost about $5,000.

These were the rough costs:

• Mentor $2000
• Manuscript assessment $600
• Book cover $200
• Complimentary and proof copies $500
• Other bits and pieces

Income for author

• The bulk of authors make either nothing or less than $5,000.
• Mid-range authors $20-40,000
• A handful earn $100,000+
• Self-published authors’ median income $1-5,000
• Commercially published authors’ median income $5-10,000
• Hybrid authors’ median income $15-20,000

(Source: Graeme Shimmon, commercially published author, Quora)

Income for books on Amazon

Books sold for less than $2.99 have a 35% royalty payment.
Books above $2.99 have a 70% royalty payment.
But remember – the higher the price, the lower the sales

You need to sell at least 100 books a day to hit the charts and trigger Amazon’s recommendation system.

I’m testing the market with my first book and slowly building a platform and niche audience with online promotion and marketing. I’ve just started and it’s a long journey.

And finally…

What’s the best piece of advice if you want to succeed? Never give up.

The Publishing War

Looking for a publisher? In North America, there are hundreds of thousands of people who dream of becoming a published author. They write in their spare time, on their days off and well into the night. Most of them, however, are reluctant to step into the ‘war zone’ that is the publishing world. “Do I self-publish? Can I get Random House to take me seriously? Should I use a Print-On-Demand publisher?” The war is on!

There is a ‘war’ going on in the publishing industry. Some people believe a writer should only approach publishing houses like Harper, Bantam or TOR. Other people believe that smaller, independent or POD publishers are the way to go. One thing is for sure; there are many aspects to contemplate when looking for the right publisher. First, what is right for one person may not be right for another. In order to make a well-informed decision you must consider the differences between the three main types of publishing.

Traditional publishing is the writer’s dream. A ‘big house’ publisher contacts you and loves your manuscript. You sign a contract a few months later. Approximately two to three years later, your book is in print and on the shelves. If you self-publish (or use a vanity press), you invest a hefty sum of money―usually $10,000 or more. You must store hundreds of books in your basement or pay for warehousing. Your book is in print and usually on the shelves in less than six months. If you use a Print-On-Demand publisher (POD), you invest a minimal amount―usually less than $2000.00. You receive 2 – 40 FREE books to do with as you please, and your book is in print in about two months.

Traditional Publishing:

With traditional publishing, a writer must abide by strict guidelines and every publisher has their own specific preferences. Some of the ‘big houses’ such as Berkley, and Random House will not even consider looking at an author if the writer does not have an agent. Most will not accept unsolicited work (which means simply that they have to request to see your manuscript, whether through an agent or as a result of your query letter).

The most important step is the query letter, and there is one rule to follow. The same rule applies to any piece of work you write, and is what I call The Three Firsts – first sentence, first paragraph and first page. The first sentence must grab your audience (even a potential publisher) and should contain the title of your work. It must give them a reason to read further and ‘hook’ them into wanting to read more. The first paragraph must give an even stronger hook; otherwise, your query will be filed…in the trashcan. The first and ONLY page in a query letter should answer the 5 W’s (who, what, where, when, why) and how. Who will buy and read your work? What is the plot? Where does the story take place and where do you see it going? When will it be finished? Why will the public be interested and why should that publisher invest their time and money in you and your work? And how are you going to help promote your work after it’s finished?

Once you’ve sent a query letter, you may be required to wait up to 6 months for an answer. If you have not already been published, or if your query letter did not grab their attention, you will receive a standard form letter, a.k.a. the rejection letter. If the publisher is interested, he may ask you to submit a proposal or plot summary and a few sample chapters. This may sit on his desk for months before he digs through the slush-pile of submissions he receives daily.
During the editing stage, the editor assigned to you will ruthlessly cut, shred and tighten your story, to their satisfaction. Sometimes you may agree with their editorial scissoring, and other times you may not. Some editors will work with you and help you churn out a top-notch novel. Others may wield their power over you until you feel someone else has written your story.

With a traditional publisher your book could take years before it sees the bookstore shelves. In the process, the publisher will determine the cover design (you may have some input, but usually the publisher makes the final decision). In most cases, you will make less than a dollar per book sold.

There are, however, undeniable benefits to being published by a traditional publisher. These books are accepted and found on most bookstore shelves. These books are returnable; this is an advantage for the customer but a disadvantage for the author as a large percentage of traditionally published books are returned or damaged. A ‘big house’ publisher will spend money on promoting you and your work; they will often arrange for interviews, appearances and booksignings. Your work will qualify for more contests, be considered more readily for movie options and, in general, you will be regarded as a professional author.

Self-Publishing:

You can self-publish your book by taking your files to a printer, having them do a large run of copies, and finding a bookbinder to bind the cover or using a vanity press self-publisher to do everything. Years ago I self-published three books. I hired a layout editor, a printer and a bookbinder to publish my children’s books. By the time I was finished, I had paid $150.00 for 18 hardcover, picture book prototypes―$150.00 each! My childcare directories were cheaper to publish (they cost about $5.00 each for about 100 copies) They sold for $5.99 so I made very little from them. (I still have unsold copies sitting in my basement.)

With self-publishing the biggest drawback is that you will usually have to invest thousands of dollars to publish a large print run of your book. You can print off smaller runs of your book but that will affect your retail cost and profit. Some people have invested $10,000 to $20,000 (especially with vanity presses) for thousands of copies of their book, as this reduces the individual copy price drastically. This means that when you sell your book, the profit margin is greatly higher than what you would receive from a traditional publisher.

The downside to this is that these thousands of books must be packaged (usually shrink-wrapped and boxed) and then stored. This leads to additional costs and often to a basement loaded with boxes of books. Some authors who chose this method are still wading through the boxes of unsold books, after years of trying to market their work.

When you self-publish you must constantly find ways to market your own books. This means either hiring someone or spending hours per day organizing booksignings and trying to get your book onto a book distributor’s list. Most distributors will not even look at self-published books. Then there are the constant trips to the local bookstores, where even they will not look at you unless you are listed with a traditional publisher or a recognized POD publisher.

The advantages of self-publishing are that you have complete control over every aspect of your product―your book. You can design your own cover, layout the pages exactly the way you want, have the end product the size that you desire and market it wherever and however you feel. You can hire a publicist to help you, advertise any way and anywhere you want and schedule booksignings on your own schedule.

POD Publishing:

Print-On-Demand is becoming the wave of the future in the book publishing industry. POD publishers are sprouting up all over the world because there is a huge demand for publishing companies that will take anything the public can crank out. Consequently, anyone who wishes to be published CAN be published. While this is terrific for the person who simply wants to write his memoirs and keep it in the family, or for the grandmother who wants to leave behind a collection of family recipes, this method of publishing has its drawbacks for the serious author.

For a Canadian author, POD publishing requires a payment amount that ranges between $500.00 to $3500.00. This will usually pay for a specific package. Every POD is different in what they offer in their packages, and you must be careful of POD’s that do not disclose all fees up front. Many POD’s will charge for every process: ISBN numbers, printing costs, cover design, layout services, listing services, and internet or regular marketing services. A few companies actually give you your money’s worth―Trafford Publishing is one.

With Trafford Publishing, the largest POD company in Canada, they offer comprehensive packages, and even allow you to upgrade later by paying the difference. They promise to deliver a completed product in four to six weeks. I have personally used Trafford Publishing twice and have found their services beyond compare. There were no hidden charges, no waiting for email responses, and no issues with the finished products. In fact, both books were comparative to anything you’d find published by a ‘big house’ publisher.

Trafford was recently featured in PROFIT: Your Guide to Business Success and ranked 5th in the Top 100 Fastest Growing Companies in Canada. Over 4000 authors (representing 5500 titles) from more than 75 countries use Trafford’s service. 2% of all new titles published in North America, and about 250 new titles every month, come from Trafford Publishing.

There are other POD companies, as mentioned above. 1st Books, iUniverse, XLibris, and many more use the Print-On-Demand technology. You should always compare services. And there are things to look for before deciding which one to use. How long has this company been in business? This is a very important factor, especially with all the ‘fly-by-night’ POD’s that have come and gone. In general, you should not even consider a company unless it has a track record of at least 5 years.

The best way to find out how a company rates is to go directly to the source. Read testimonials from other authors that have used their services. Then ask the publisher for three names and email addresses not on the testimonial list. If the publisher will not release that information, check their site. Research their authors, find email addresses and contact them. It’s amazing what you will learn about a company by talking to the people who actually use their services. You will find out if the company is slow, if they return emails promptly, if there are unusual contract clauses, and if that company is worth your investment.

You should also thoroughly research the publisher online. Look for complaints or articles about the company and look especially for the publisher’s site. Warning: If the publisher does not have his own .com, .net or .ca website―STAY AWAY. Never deal with a “publisher” who uses a sub-site address. A serious, respectable publisher will always invest in a proper website! Otherwise you will be using “Joe-Blows” service or “Grandma Mae’s In-Home Publishing”. If a POD publisher expects to be taken seriously, they will invest in a professional site, hi-tech equipment and experienced staff.

Remember to ask the 5 W’s and How:

Who owns the company? Are they experienced as a publisher? Do they have the contacts to promote you? How many years have they published books?

What have they published so far? Do they have hundreds of satisfied customers…or two or three? Some ‘publishers’ have advertised their services when they have only self-published their own work. What technology do they use for their printing, or do they hire out?

Where will your books be promoted? Will you be listed with book distributors? Will your book appear on Amazon.com and other prestigious websites?

When will you have a complete final product in your hands? Some POD’s take up to six months before you have a finished product.

Why should you trust this company? What do they offer that is over and above the other POD’s? What are their policies? Ask for a copy of the agreement or contract ahead of time. Take it to a lawyer if you must.

How much is their service going to cost? What is the total cost involved from beginning to end? Are there any hidden charges? Is it a safe risk and a realistic investment?

The advantages with a POD publisher are varied, depending on the company and their package deals. By choosing Print-On-Demand, you’ll be helping the environment and saving thousands of trees. Your book will be printed as each order comes in; therefore, less waste. With a POD publisher, you can supply your own cover or hire someone to design a cover for you. You are free to promote yourself and your books any way you want. You can walk into a bookstore, speak with a manager and arrange for your book to appear on their shelves. A professional POD company will be on all the right ‘lists’, so you will not be as limited in what you can do with your book.

Of course, for an author the best reason to go with a POD publisher is that you will not get a rejection letter, your book will finally be published and will be available to the public in less than six months, and you can finally call yourself a “published author”.

So, you want to be a published author. Do you have talent and can you actually write something worth reading? Have you researched your market and target audience? Do you have the wisdom to have all your work edited by at least three other pair of eyes? Are you willing to ‘shamelessly promote’ yourself? If you have answered ‘yes’ to all of these questions, you can be published. With today’s technology and new outlook on the world of publishing, ‘getting published’ is easy! Choosing the right method of publishing is the difficult part. Trafford was ‘right’ for me, but it may not be ‘right’ for you. The war continues―the publishing war.

Note: This article reflects the viewpoint of the writer. It is a culmination of years of research and various publishing experiences (either the author’s or those she interviewed). It is up to you, the reader, to glean what advice you can, to research on your own and to make your own informed decision. Although Trafford Publishing is highlighted in this article, there are other professional, well-respected POD publishers in all areas of publishing. And there are certainly pros and cons to all three types of publishing. ~ CKT

©2004 Cheryl Kaye Tardif