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Jan 01, 2021
Publishing is Hard. No, it’s easy.
Make up your own mind. There are a lot of details to address and decide when you self-publish. Not all of them are apparent when you start. Write a manuscript, ship it off to a publisher, and kick back and watch the money roll in while you dream and decide what to write next. That’s the dream for many would-be authors.
Then you get into the nitty gritty and find out that’s far from the reality. The allure fades fast. Do I buy my own ISBN or use a courtesy one from a publishing platform? What formats do I want? What’s my price point, and why? How do I get anyone to know about this wonderful book I’ve written and shower me with love and affection (money)? You get the idea, I hope. Or better yet, like me, you’ve already been there, done that, have a road map for next time.
As for me, here’s looking back thru the jungle of my first several books (now all taken out of print while I publish anew):
I have a finished manuscript, yippee! Ok, now it’s sat a week or two. Let me read this and feel good all over again. Ugh, I think I need a second opinion, but this couldn’t be better. Let’s find an editor who will tell me I’m the most marvelous successor to Stephen King.
What? MY manuscript is terrible? Surely you’re mistaken! You want how much? Hmmm. Let’s let that sink in a bit, I’ll get back to you.
Ok, I admit it does need some work. Let’s make a deal so I can sell the last five years of tears I’ve sunk into this story. The check is in the mail (Right…).
Then, your editor comes back with their recommended modifications. He or she mutilated your story. You barely recognize it. Did your editor just steal your work and replace it with something else? Ok, let me look at the original again. Oh, I can’t even read this, did I write this garbage? Let me read what the editor has again. Wait, this is pretty good. I’m missing a lot of what made my superman special, but it reads like a real book I’d find in a bookstore now. Dang, I’m good! Don’t forget to thank your editor. Right. Then.
Thank goodness for that wonderful edit. I still need to tweak this, and add that back. Maybe even have them look it over again or help me with a title.
Editors do not know marketing. Remember this important fact. The good ones recognize their own shortcomings. Editors halls, homes, and studies are full of failed former authors. Failed, in that they didn’t sell. Some of them were wonderful writers. But they couldn’t convince anyone to read what they wrote. They starved until they gave up and began using what they knew to improve other’s writing in the hopes that they could feed the family they started when they thought they were about to be rich and famous. Besides, this way they can tag along for the ride to fame and glory if a writer they helped does make it big. But we still have a book to sell. And a title is a critical part to selling your book. Or finding it. An editor can help with ideas, but that’s it.
You don’t need to decide on a title before you write your book. Mine changed, several times. While I was writing it even. And then again afterward, more than once. And I think I could do better yet. I even changed it once after I published it. But it was my first. I learned. The number one consideration for title should be two: describing your story, and marketing it. Yes, that’s right, the dread “M” word. Learn it. Know it. Breathe it. That’s where your story lives in public or dies with you. Marketing. And your title will play a very large role in deciding that fate.
Marketing has two phases to it for authors. First is the research. Where are you going to sell it? Whether you use a tool like KDSpy to scour Amazon’s best seller lists for topics and keywords or manually scour Amazon or your bookseller for similar works and see what categories and titles are selling, you need to know what you are competing against, and most importantly, what are your first page competitors doing to be on that first page. Copy their success by using similar words and phrases in your title and description. Piggyback up the ranks until enough people read and comment on your book to get you on that coveted front page. This is also when you should be comparing titles and choosing a price to sell at. Compare titles for similar subject matter. Subject matter and content quality are more important in setting your price as a self-publisher than number of published pages. This is because with the methods I’m illustrating, your books never take up shelf space, which is a traditional publisher and book seller’s constant concern and nightmare if you don’t sell. With my model, no books print until they sell, unless of course you want a few copies on hand for yourself.
Whether you choose a title before or after you write your story, do not skimp on your marketing. Research, then use what you find the most successful stories are using. Find a way to craft those words and phrases into an accurate description of your story. Then, you can sell it.
At last, I think I have a real book. A story the public can read and enjoy. And a title. But no one’s bought it yet. I still need to decide: paperback, ebook only, what eformats, hardcover, do I want a special or limited edition. And the choices go on and on. You need to decide this before you design a cover. Different formats will need different sizes. Your cover is one image, whether it’s a frontispiece to your ebook or a full cover on your nine by thirteen inch encyclopedia binding. And the size you need depends on page count. To know your page count, you need to format your manuscript to it’s final page size.
Wait, you didn’t format it yet? Are you serious? Well, we can fix that now. Did you at least have someone else proofread it? I say someone else, because even after my editor and I spent 3 months revising it and reviewing it afterward, we both still found typos or errors due to the word processor’s automatic corrections. Formats do change page count. Plus, if it’s a physical book, not only do you have dimensions to consider, you have to remember to add an extra margin, called a gutter, to the inner edge of all the pages. Not hard to do, but even easier to overlook when you do everything yourself. If you’re using a platform like Amazon’s, there are tooltips to help you with these measurements (even for the right image size for your cover, based on your page count) along the way. Don’t forget to include any front or back matter, such as acknowledgements, dedications, table of contents, copyrights pages, author’s note, editor’s note, title page, and the list can go on and on.
Now we have an edited manuscript, a title, and a format or two. I ended up with at least four: Word, pdf, epub, all for the electronic versions, and another copy, in pdf and Word, for the print version, a six by nine inch trade paperback. Now we can make the cover images. If you’re incredibly patient, gifted, and creative, there are options such as Canva to do this yourself and do a professional job. I like Canva because you can customize to any size image you need, and they have a number of preset image sizes to choose from as well. When you’re happy with an image, you can download it in png, jpg, or pdf (& other) formats, to address all of your needs on nay platform. You will want a pdf copy for some publishers. Others will only accept a jpeg. Each has its own quirks and requirements.
Another good thing about Canva is you own your images when you make them. And they are saved on Canva's platform, easy to change and update later without having to start over from scratch recreating it. For example, if you get a journalist review from the New York Times because you made their best seller list, you might want to rework your cover and quote that review, especially on your print cover. Easy to do with Canva. And you can do it for free or for cheap. You can use your own images or some of theirs for free. Other premium images can be a dollar each, each time you use them, or included in a subscription (if you will use Canva's premium content that much.
You’ll want a cover for your ebooks, and a separate cover for each size or edition of your print books. One size will not fit all a you'll need different size, shape, format, and information for different versions across different platforms. If you decide to make your own cover, I strongly recommend you try Canva if you are willing to do it yourself. Otherwise you will spend at least $75, but more likely $150-500 to get a high quality cover image for your books if you have to outsource it thru a designer. There are discount methods, but you are almost always losing something valuable in exchange for the supposed savings.
You might find yourself making tweaks to your manuscript and cover as you work through these steps. Mostly to adjust front or back matter. You know, the stuff people skip, like ISBN if they weren’t sure if they wanted to spend the money on their own number or not.
ISBN numbers deserve a brief digression because there is a lot of confusion about them amongst authors. To keep it very brief, I recommend always using your own. Even if you live in a country where you have to buy a batch. If you have a friend in Canada, New Zealand, or South Africa who doesn’t mind you using their address, you can get your own for free. If not, you’re going to pay, and they’re not cheap. The company that issues them in each country is a monopoly, and the book selling industries recognize this one number as the single most important and central way to track books throughout the entire world.
An important warning on ISBN numbers: do NOT buy from a reseller. Whoever buys from your country’s agency is the owner of record and will always be associated with that number. Take the time to set up your publishing imprint (the publishing company name you are using, different from an author’s pen name) and buy your own numbers for that imprint. If you don’t, even if a reseller tells you you have rights, you don’t, they are simply loaning you their rights. The same is true if you take a courtesy ISBN thru Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or anyone else. Tip: If you use your own publishing imprint, take some time and think “marketing” again. Choose a publishing name that will use keywords that will help you show up in Amazon searches, and remember, your publishing name and pen name will show up on everything you write, so be creative, but use a variation on words that people search on a constant basis.
Another important note to consider if you want to save money and use a courtesy ISBN. If you use one from KDP or any other Amazon imprint for that matter, you are limiting yourself later unless you create multiple versions of your ebook (I do). Not only can you not use that ISBN on other platforms (the other platforms will notice and recognize the Amazon association), many stores will also not stock your book. To do so in their eyes will be endorsing Amazon, and in the book seller’s world Amazon is and will remain The Enemy. For many good reasons, as we now see them arbitrarily censoring materials they allow to be published and remain on their platform on strictly political grounds, a choice that should always be the reader and the reader's alone to decide who and what they will endorse by their purchase.
Bottom line: Buy and use your own ISBN. You will own all of your rights, at all times. You can take your book anywhere and sell it to anyone, without anyone else’s permission, and without picking sides in the perpetual Amazon vs. booksellers everywhere struggle. I haven’t seen a platform yet that won’t accept use of your own publishing imprint’s ISBN. You will however lose out on half your potential e-book commission on Amazon. What I do for this is if I publish on Amazon, I let Amazon provide the ISBN for their version only. I use my own purchased ISBNs everywhere else and those are also the only ISBNs I list in my front material. I get the full commission on any Amazon sales from being in "KDP Select" without losing my ability, recognition, or control to publish elsewhere. And anyone who owns a copy still my ISBN # if they want to buy it from a store or refer it to a friend, relative, or library.
One more free piece of advice. Remember the monopoly wants to force you to buy ISBN numbers at the price they dictate. You will need at least two ISBNs: one for your eversions, one for your print versions. You might need more later if you make print runs in a different size, but in general, you can get away fine with one ISBN for print and another for ebooks.
That’s enough about ISBN numbers for now or we’ll never get your book published!
Ok. We have a manuscript with front and back matter. We have a marketable title and price. We have a cover. What else? It’s time to put them all together.
One other note. Separate from the ISBN, in the U.S. there's a Library of Congress Control Number. If you want any library in the U.S. to every buy or catalogue your book, you need one of these. The process takes a few days, but this number is free, as long as you send them a copy of your printed work once published. You need this number, and to print it in your front material, if you want to have the possibility of being stocked in a library. Several other countries have a similar requirement specific to their country.
Here’s my roadmap for future publications. If you want to keep on average an extra 5% of your royalties, you can upload to more booksellers yourself, but you can do quite well and reach pretty much every eseller in the knowne world if you upload your ebook to Amazon’s KDP platform and Smashwords. Amazon refuses to work with others - though if you're savvy you can put an Amazon-only edition out and distribute the same work elsewhere with a different ISBN to get around their attempts at monopoly, and Smashwords will facilitate you reaching literally everyone else. I found Smashwords to be very difficult to use for any titles I’m not giving away free because of certain peculiarities in their formatting expectations and the fact that their system seems buggy if you are trying to get into their premium catalog, but I would be amiss if I didn’t point out that if you can work with them, they are the fastest and most thorough distributor to reach the public. I've use Lulu, which is a lot slower to distribute but reaches many of the same audiences, and doesn’t ask for frivolous or unnecessary vanity changes to my work. I've also never had Lulu's system reject works for formatting anomalies that can't be located, as I have with every title I ran thru Smashwords.
Today, I upload my works to: Amazon (ebook and print-on-demand), Smashwords - though they now only distribute if you're in their "premium" listings, which requires running the gamut of their formatting and screening nightmare, Barnes & Noble, Apple for iBooks (I'm approved but have some technical issues to resolve), and Ingrambooks for worldwide distribution. I haven't settled yet on my audiobook distributor, though I've noticed today that is more important than any of the others - my audiobook sales eclipse the other versions of a book combined in many cases!
Add to these two resources a print on demand service such as Ingramspark, which reaches every significant distributor and bookstore on the planet (Amazon does provide an integrated print on demand option as well) and you are all set. Customers can then request your book from their favorite bookstore thru print on demand, or direct from your website. Note: many local booksellers only order special requests for print on demand books because their profit margin tend to be much lower. Especially if you use any Amazon brand or product.
You did it. You’re published. Now it’s up to you whether and how you continue to market your work. That’s the biggest factor on whether or not you will succeed or not. And that's a topic for books, not a mere blog post. You have to have people see your book. The simple fact is the more people that see it, the more that will buy it. Not everyone will buy, but if you want more sales, find a way to get more traffic. Your success is in your hands. My first novel debuted in the top 2-3% in all channels I presented it online. This wasn’t good enough. Less than the top 1% of a category are profitable and make their money back or turn an ongoing profit. I've published several works since, and now I have also pulled nearly all of them off their platforms or sent them into "out of print" obscurity and started anew. Take my experience and advice as you will for what it's worth.
I wish you luck.
Oh, and buy my books. There isn't one that came easy.
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