Recently I sat down and talked with long time friend and first time fiction author Rick Ferguson about his experiences self-publishing his fantasy novel “The Screaming Skull”. If you are considering a foray into self-publishing his answers may help you find your way.
Q: Why self-publish over sending the book out to publishers?
A: For me, the choice to self-publish was a no-brainer. To go the “trad” publishing route would have required: six months to a year to find an agent (that’s if you survive dozens of rejections); six months to a year for the agent to find a publisher (that’s if you survive another several dozen rejections); and six months to a year before the publisher brought the book to market. That’s an 18-month to three-year process to trad-publish versus four months to self-publish and get the book immediately into the hands of readers. In addition, the publisher would most likely have required multiple changes to the book, would have allowed me no control over the cover or blurb, and would have offered me a 15% royalty rate vs. the 70% royalty rate I enjoy through self-publishing. Trad publishers no longer market your book for you but expect you to market your book yourself–and they’re unlikely to even give you that opportunity unless you already have an established audience via another platform. The only advantage left to trad-publishing is the opportunity to get your book into brick-and-mortar bookstores–where it would compete for shelf-space with already established authors.
There are really only two disadvantages to self-publishing. One, you’re attempting to stand out in a market flooded with inferior product. Trad-publishers serve the “gatekeeper” role to ensure only quality books get published; in the indie market, there are a lot of bad books out there. Two, self-publishing requires you to be a small businessperson as well as an author. You’re responsible for both the expense and effort required to produce, distribute, and market your books, so you really have to adopt the mindset that you’re running a business. So, if all you want to do is write and leave the business stuff to someone else, then trad-publishing is certainly more appealing. With my business and marketing background, however, I was excited by rather than afraid of that challenge.
Q: As a published author in marketing did you consider trying to use contacts in that field to contact publishers?
A: If I had written a business or marketing book, then I certainly would have gone the traditional publishing route, as I have a well-established reputation as a marketing thought leader. For fiction writing, that advantage kind of disappears. No one reading my fiction cares about my business background; they only want to read an entertaining book.
Q: How did you go about finding your illustrator?
A: I found my illustrator online, and I got lucky because he was the first and only illustrator I talked to. As soon as I saw his work, I knew he was the right artist. I was fortunate enough to find him available and willing to work for a reasonable fee!
Q: Did you self-edit, or farm the editing out to people?
A: There are roughly three stages involved in the editing process. First comes “developmental” editing, where an editor looks at the structure of the book, decides what’s working and what’s not working, and recommends major changes to the material. Next comes copy editing, in which an editor looks for grammatical errors and consistency, continuity errors, and conciseness of language. Last comes proof-reading, where an editor looks for typos, spelling errors, and style errors. Some writers pay editors for all three steps, but that can get prohibitively expensive. I’m a good self-editor, so I handled the first two steps myself and paid someone to proof-read. No one person can ever catch every error in the manuscript, so it’s important to have another editor review your manuscript before you publish it.
Q: Are there lots of choices for potential self-publishers to work with? How did you go about choosing Amazon?
A: No indie author can hope to find an audience without Amazon; they offer far and away the largest global market to find readers. The big question for indie authors is whether to go “exclusive” with Amazon or go “wide” by also publishing on Apple iBooks, Kobo (Canada’s largest online bookseller) and other distributors. Going exclusive with Amazon allows you to get your book into the Kindle Select Program and offer it through Prime Reading and the Kindle Lending Library–but to participate in those programs, you must be exclusive to Amazon and not offer your book anywhere else. For me as a new, unknown author, going exclusive to Amazon initially made sense as a good way to provide a “frictionless” method for readers to find me. For the second and third books in my series, I’ll most likely go wide with them.
Q: What were the steps you had to take in order to publish with them? Did they have restrictions on content, length, etc.?
A: Publishing through Kindle on Amazon is relatively easy, with no restrictions on what you publish. There are production hoops through which you must jump: Your manuscript must be formatted appropriately, and for print books it can be tricky to get them to accept your cover image without several rounds of tweaking. Fortunately, there are several good online self-publishing groups that offer advice and counseling for new authors trying to navigate the process.
Q: Does Amazon let you promote your book on the site? Do you get to submit the description, genre, key search terms, etc.?
A: Yes, you are in control of your book description, what categories under which your book appears, and under what keywords you hope to be found. There is a helpful software program used by most indie authors that helps you find “under-served” categories and keywords through which you can be discovered by readers. For example, my book was written to appeal to players of role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, so I chose to add my book to “fantasy role-playing games” categories on Amazon. We’ll see how that works for me!
Q: You mentioned that it can be a free download on some e-readers? How does that work? How hard was it to get it available on those sites?
A: The most important marketing tool for indie authors is an email list of people interested in your stuff. There are several indie-author promotional sites out there that allow you to offer your book for free in exchange for someone joining your email list. Most of them charge a fee, but it’s a great way for an unknown author to build an audience.
Q: What kind of “out of pocket” costs might one expect to incur if they decide to self-publish?
A: The big danger for new indie authors is that there are a lot of predators out there willing to take advantage of your desire to publish. That means one provider might charge three times as much as another provider for the same service. Or they might offer “one stop shopping” and provide editing, production, and marketing services for a hefty fee, much more than you really need to pay. Fortunately, there’s an indie author group called The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLIE for short) that provides a watchdog service for authors so they don’t get burned.
If you do everything yourself: all editing, use free online tools to create your cover, and format yourself, you can publish your book for next to nothing. Most indie authors do pay for copy-editing, proofreading, and cover design, and those costs can run around $2,000 for an average novel. I also invested in some start-up costs to set myself up for future success: I paid for a web site designer, and I invested in some self-publishing courses to help me learn the nuts and bolts of book production and marketing. So all-in, I’ve invested around $5,000 to launch my self-publishing business. I probably won’t recoup those costs until I get all three books in my series published. I will also be investing in some targeted ads on Amazon and Facebook, but not until the second book is published.
There is a “formula” that a lot of indie authors use as a mantra of sorts; the formula is “Ten books to $50K.” The idea is that, once you have an established back catalog of ten books in the marketplace–and if your books find an audience–then you can start making some decent cash. Maybe not enough to quit your day job, but enough for your writing habit to qualify as a profitable side-hustle. I’m fortunate in that I made enough money in my business career that I can now devote full time to my new writing career. Most writers don’t have that luxury, so it becomes a matter of plugging away until you break through. If you’re good enough and your stuff makes a mark, then the sky’s the limit!
Q: Book one is said to be the first of three books in the series, do you plan on making the other works using the same process? What is your timetable for those books?
A: Yes, I will absolutely be publishing the next two books in the series via the indie-author playbook. Book Two will come out in the fall of 2019, and Book Three in the summer of 2020!
Q: What mistakes do you think you might be able to avoid, if any, the second time around?
A: I probably published my first book too soon. It’s very difficult to get any traction in the marketplace with only a single book; the idea is to build a catalog so you can, for example, make the first book in your series free to hook readers and sell them through to the other books. It might have been better to wait until I had all three books written before publishing. I had personal reasons for wanting to get this first book published, however, and doing so has been a valuable learning process. For future book series, I’ll most likely have at least two books in the series written before I publish them.
Submitted by Chris Walters – retired science teacher, KCPL circulation assistant, and prog-rock fan.