I can’t wait to start reading my friend’s first novel. I happily empty my wallet to buy an autographed copy. I inhale the new book smell and flip through all those pages looking forward to what I expect to be a wonderful experience. I brew a cup of tea, settle into my comfortable chair with the dog at my side and turn to Chapter One.
That’s when I realize the writing is bad. Really bad. By page three, I still don’t know what’s going on. My critique group would tear it to pieces. Bill would say he doesn’t get it. Dorothy would cross out most of the pages, saying it’s not interesting, it doesn’t go anywhere. I’d ask for scenes, for specifics, and for dialogue that sounds the way people really talk. I would note the many grammatical errors, the mismatched modifiers and the typos. We would send the author back to his computer to start over.
But it’s already a published book. It’s going out into the world as is. Book-signings, publication parties and readings have been scheduled. It’s too late. Where was the editor? How could he or she let this book go out into the world this way?
Another author sends his book to me via Kindle, asking for a review. By the end, I’m so frustrated I’d throw it across the room, except I don’t want to break my Kindle. It has bad characters and bad dialogue. It raises questions that are never answered. I vow to never read another book by this author.
The next one, also an e-book, has good content, but the writing and the typos make it painful to read.
I turn to an old classic for some literary relief. I have two more new books to read and review, but I can’t stand it anymore.
You know what makes me even more nuts? These authors get their friends to offer five-star reviews that make them sound like Pulitzer Prize winners. I read them and think: Did they read the same book that I read? Do readers just not know the difference anymore?
These books are self-published. They give self-publishing a bad name. After a while, even though I have self-published some of my own books, I check the copyright page, see that a book is self-published and don’t want to read it.
The problem is two-fold. First, everybody needs an editor. No matter how good a writer you are, you can’t see your own mistakes. You can’t back away from the story and see the big picture. Your brain is programmed to see what you want it to see. Start with a critique group. It hurts to have people point out your writing flaws, but it helps so much in improving your writing, so get your work critiqued before you publish it. Run it by some non-writer readers, too. See if they react the way you hope they will, laughing at the funny parts, loving the characters, getting wrapped up in the story. If they don’t, you need work on it some more.
Before you self-publish a book, get it professionally edited. It can cost quite a lot—over a thousand dollars in some cases—but it can make the difference between a well-written book and one that needs work. As I read recently in a brilliant article by Russell Blake called “How to Sell Loads of Books,” “If you’re too cheap or too broke to pay an editor, barter something of value to get someone qualified to do it, or (gasp, here’s an idea) save some money so you can do it right. Skip these steps and you won’t sell much, if anything. Or if you do, it won’t last very long, because word will spread, and then you’re dead.”
Of course, not everyone who calls herself an editor is a good one. Ask for recommendations from writer friends, get referrals from the acknowledgements of books you admire, or check the Editorial Freelancers Association.
The second problem, a deeper and more difficult one, is that people are putting out books when they haven’t laid the groundwork for a writing career. It’s like some guy who wants to be an electrician expecting to rewire the White House without having taken any classes or served an apprenticeship. Good writers spend years working on their craft. They take classes and workshops, earn degrees, read the works of the masters, and write reams of prose or poetry that never gets published. Like pianists practicing their scales, they practice their craft and never stop learning. They don’t dash out 60,000 raw words and start designing the cover. They spend years revising and polishing.
Yes, with today’s technology, anyone can write a book and publish it. You can do everything yourself or pay one of the many companies offering to give birth to your book—no matter how bad it is or how unready it is for publication. Years ago, I talked to Donald Maas, agent and author of Writing the Breakout Novel, about print-on-demand publishing. With POD, all the rage at the turn of this century, companies like iUniverse and Xlibris would publish your books but not print them until orders came in. They offered marketing help for extra fees but no editing. What you sent them was what got published. Now with e-books and Amazon’s CreateSpace program, you can put out your books for free. There’s nothing wrong with that if they’re truly ready for publication.
Maas said most self-published authors don’t take the time for that last much-needed rewrite. There are a lot of good reasons writers avoid the big publishing conglomerates these days. The competition is fierce, and it can take years for a book to be published, but for God’s sake, don’t jump into print (or cyberprint) until your book is the best it can possibly be. Don’t make me want to throw it across the room.
And if you haven’t developed your craft or gotten your book edited, please don’t ask me to review it. No matter how pretty the cover is or how much I want to say good things, if I see problems with your book, I’m going to tell the truth. You have to earn your stars from me.
Now go write.
I’m giving away free copies of my Kindle e-books Childless by Marriage and Azorean Dreams Oct. 28-31. Sure, I want you to know about it and download copies, but I also want to talk about this freebie phenomenon. It’s a promotion encouraged by Amazon.com, the main perk for being enrolled in their Kindle Select program. The idea, seemingly approved by all who sell e-books, is that getting huge numbers of people to download your books and post favorable reviews will show the world that these books are worthy of note. Ideally, you and your book will go viral, publishers, movie producers and Oprah will notice, and your career will take off. That’s the dream.
To make this work, you publicize the giveaway on the dozens of sites offering free Kindle books. At least dozens. Google “free Kindle ebooks.” I keep finding more, and I’m exhausted from filling out their forms. This is not writing, not even close. This is giving away my books. But it’s an e-book that didn’t actually cost me anything to publish. I’m a lot more stingy with the printed version.
I’ve got a friend who only reads books on her Kindle now and only downloads books that are free. She’s not the only one. When she and her husband joined me and my brother and his wife for dinner a while back, they shared long lists of free e-book sites.
People don’t want to pay for books anymore, not if there’s a chance they can get them for free. I find myself looking for freebies, too. Out in the world, when I’m selling my paperbacks, I have noticed that all of us independent author/publishers are lowering the prices on our books. In 1998, when my book Stories Grandma Never Told came out, people were tossing $20 bills at me like they were nothing. Now I’ve got customers counting out singles, hoping they can put together $15 for a new book. Why? It’s partially the economy, but it’s also the new mindset of readers that books shouldn’t cost real money.
Or is it just self-published books? Most of the freebies are self-published, and most of them are fiction. Books published by the big corporations cost less than they used to, but you won’t see them being given away. People will buy them without these special promotions.
Perusing the free titles, I get a little queasy. According to http://digitalbooktoday.com, 4,000-5,000 free titles are being offered right now. Yet their subjects don’t appeal to me–heavy on vampires, murders and romance–and the ones I have read often need a little more editing. I suddenly picture the bins of worn paperbacks outside the secondhand store. “Free,” the hand-lettered sign proclaims, but they don’t look like books anyone would want.
Bottom line, I want people to read my books. Lots of people. Money is a secondary concern. So I’ll give them away for four days and see what happens. Let’s consider it my Halloween gift to the world.
What do you think about all this? How much are you willing to pay for an e-book? Paperback? Hardcover? If it’s free or inexpensive, do you automatically assume it’s not as good?
If you go for traditional printing instead of print-on-demand, the day will come when you bring home boxes, boxes and more boxes of your new book. You tear a box open, pull out a copy, and oh, there’s your book, your dream come true. There’s the cover you labored over, the words you poured out of your soul and spent hours/days/weeks formatting. It looks small, huh? After all that work. But it’s yours, and it’s a book.
If you pick them up from the print shop (as opposed to having them shipped from somewhere), give them a close look before you leave. In fact, go through a whole box and check them carefully. Are they bound properly, the spine and covers smooth, the colors what you expected? Right now is your best chance to get them redone for free if they’re not right, so check. I have had to send books back. I hated handing them back, hated the delay, especially when I had customers waiting, but you pay a lot of money to have books printed and they need to be right.
Assuming they’re fine, now you have to find a place to put them. It needs to be clean and dry, accessible but not in the way. Where I live on the Oregon coast, the dampness in the garage is murder on books, so I stash them in a bedroom. At this point, with several titles to sell, I wish I had a warehouse. Books take space, and the boxes are heavy. But having them there is incentive to get busy selling them.
Stash some books in the car and never go anywhere without them. If someone says, “I’d like to buy a copy of your book,” you can put one in their hands before they change their mind.
Most of your sales will not be in person. Stock up on padded envelopes and boxes to mail your books. You can get them much cheaper online than at your local office supply store. You’ll need packing tape. Custom mailing labels, available through Vistaprint, add a nice touch.
Get ready for your first order. You’re in the book-selling business now.
We have been talking about self-publishing for the last couple months. I’m not sure how interested you are in reading about this. The next topics would be setting up channels for selling your books and the complicated worlds of publicity and marketing, but I’m thinking we should get back to writing. If I don’t hear otherwise from anyone, I will stop this self-publishing series here for now, but if you send questions in the comments section, I’ll be delighted to answer them.
All the best,
Our previous posts have covered editing your books, designing a cover, and formatting your books. It is possible, although not always wise, to do all of these things ourselves, but we’re probably not equipped to print our own books. Unless we’re doing print on demand, which we discussed in July, our next step is to get the book printed. This is the biggest cost of producing your own book, so it pays to choose wisely.
Where do I find a printer?
There’s always the phone book. If you look under “printing,” you may find several listings, a lot if you live in a big city But not all printers are equipped to print books. If they say they do books, ask to see some samples. Are they well printed and bound? Does the ink come off on your hands? Is the print consistently clear and dark? Can they do full-color covers or are they limited to one or two “spot” colors?” Will they help you prepare the book for printing? Ask to see samples of paper and cover stock. Don’t settle for junky-looking books.
You don’t have to settle for a local shop. Lots of publishers, including big-name traditional publishers, get their books printed out of state or even out of the country because it’s less expensive. These days, book files are sent online, so it doesn’t really matter where they are. Ask other authors where they get their books done. Look on the copyright and acknowledgment pages of published books for mentions of what company printed them. Visit their web pages or call them to see if they might be the right printers for you.
How much is this going to cost me?
Approach several printers to get estimates for the cost of printing your book. You will need to know how many pages the finished book will be, how many copies you want, and how much you can afford to spend. It helps to figure out how much you will charge for the book so you can see how much you will make on each copy once you subtract the printing costs. The more copies you print, the lower the per-copy price will be, but be realistic about how many boxes of books you want piled up in your house. Remember, you can always go back and print more.
By now, you’re grinding your teeth, wanting specific numbers. Okay, I’ll lay it out here. My newest book, Childless by Marriage, cost me $8.19 per book for 300 copies, totaling $2,458. In addition to this, I paid $103 for them to design the cover, another $100 for promotional postcards and $60 for three stand-up foam-backed posters. I’m charging $15.95 a book. Most retail stores will ask for a 40 percent discount. Amazon demands 55 percent. You do the math.
To be honest, prices at the small-town shop I use are a little high, but they’re local, they help me a lot with the formatting and other details, they design fabulous covers, and I have a long history with them. When I want more copies or more promotional materials, all it takes is an email and they start printing. But I won’t lie. As we say here in Oregon, it’s “spendy.”
A Google search will yield lots of companies offering to publish your book for as low as $2.94 a copy. They may be great. Check them out. All of them will give you a free estimate. But watch out for hidden costs–shipping?–and ask for a sample of their work before you trust them with your book.
How long will it take?
One of the big advantages to self-publishing vs. having a traditional publisher do it is that you can have your printed book in a few weeks vs. a year or longer. One of the disadvantages is that most of us don’t have warehouses or a shipping crew. You will receive all of the books at once and will need to find a clean, dry place to store them. Having all of these books underfoot should inspire you to get busy marketing your new book.
Opening that first box full of the book your wrote and published is going to feel fantastic.
So, you’re ready to self-publish. You have the inside of the book, but how do you get a cover?
The good news and the bad news are the same: You’re in charge of your cover.
Unless you are a professional artist, preferably with some graphic design training, don’t try to do it all by yourself. Your cover is a critical part of selling your book. Even for e-books, the cover is what customers see when they go shopping. It can either turn them off or draw them in. You want them to love it so much they just have to see what’s inside the book.
If you are an artist or know someone who is, that’s an advantage. However, not all artists know how to do book covers, and you don’t want to ruin your friendship if it doesn’t work out. Still, a wonderful image, such as an original painting or photo, can make your cover sing.
Having control over your own cover is one of the advantages of self-publishing. I have had publishers provide covers that I loved and covers that I hated. If you look closely at my Freelancing for Newspapers cover, the print on the third newspaper down talks about “genital warts.” I was horrified when I saw it, but there was nothing I could do.
Likewise, on the first edition of Stories Grandma Never Told, the publisher used a picture of one of the women I interviewed. I hated it. I wanted a picture of my great-grandmother, but here was this other lady, and I didn’t want her on the cover. Too bad.
When I published Azorean Dreams through iUniverse, I sent them a picture of a harbor from one of the Azores Islands. They sent me a gorgeous cover featuring a couple kissing on a rock, with the harbor behind them. The background was a luscious blue. Just one problem. My hero had a mustache and this guy didn’t. They drew on a mustache. Fine. A couple years later, I discovered the same picture on the back covers of six months worth of Oregon Coast Magazine as part of an advertisement. The same picture. The same couple, minus the mustache. By then, I was pretty sure that was Italy, not the Azores. They had used clip art, available to anybody willing to pay for it. I was appalled, but that’s still the cover on the book.
When the original publisher let Stories Grandma Never Told go and I republished it myself, I got the cover of my dreams. The designer, Andrew Cier, from Newport Lazerquick, used photos I had provided to design a gorgeous cover that still makes people stop and comment.
For my latest book, Childless by Marriage, I didn’t know what to do. I was hoping the artist suggested by my printer would catch the essence of the book and come up with something wonderful, but she didn’t. She e-mailed me several completely inappropriate covers and insisted I choose one. Refusing, I wound up with a plain brown cover with a pair of wedding rings on the front because I needed something to get the e-book out by Mother’s Day. Ultimately, I went back to Lazerquick. My “artist” had used “clip art,” nothing I couldn’t have gotten myself . I went online. I found some great images, but then I thought: wait, I think I have something in my photo albums. Sure enough, I found the wedding picture that Jeffery Shirley turned into a cover I truly love. I wasted a bit of money with the earlier unusable versions, but it was worth the expense to get the right cover.
What I’m saying is that if you’re publishing your own book, you have to get the best cover you possibly can. Don’t try to do it without expert help, but also don’t expect them to be mind-readers. Look in your photos, your art, even at clip art for images that might work. One precaution: You can’t use somebody else’s copyrighted image without obtaining permission. It’s easy to grab something off the Internet or scan a picture you find in a magazine, but it’s illegal to use it for your book without taking the proper steps.
Study other covers to see what you like and don’t like. Remember that the cover has to allow space for the title and your name. Think about what colors you would like for the background, the spine and the back cover, all of which will include print that you want people to be able to read.
If you Google “clip art,” you will find sites such as “clipart.com” where you can purchase images for a surprisingly reasonable fee. A search for “book cover design” will bring you lots of companies willing to design your cover or offer you templates. These may work. Check them out carefully before you spend money. Just make sure you get the cover you like, preferably one that won’t turn up someday in a magazine ad.
Coming up: formatting your book and finding a printer
So you’ve decided to publish your own book. Excellent choice. You will have control over every aspect of the project, from writing to sales, and you will see your book in print within months instead of the year or more it can take with a traditional publisher. Now, roll up your sleeves; you’ve got a lot of work to do.
The most important thing is to write the best book you can. That means writing and rewriting until it’s ready, no matter how long it takes. There’s no point in worrying about cover art or advertising if you don’t have a good book to sell.
Aside from writing the book, the next most important thing is good editing. You may think you can edit your book yourself. You may even be a professional editor. I am, but I still hired an editor to look at Childless by Marriage before I published it. With her input, I wound up doing a major rewrite, but she also gave me the confidence to know this book was worth publishing.
No writer can see her own work the way other people perceive it. We’re too close to it. A good editor can see the book as a whole, noting things that are missing or that don’t fit, marking bad transitions, thoughts that are not complete, places where our egos cloud our writing, etc. She can also find our typos, misspellings and grammar gaffes. You think you can do this yourself, but you can’t. It’s like a doctor trying to cure himself or a lawyer representing himself in court.
I found my editor through a book she had written about writing. When I discovered she did editing, I hired her. It wasn’t cheap—approximately $1,200–but it was worth it. We worked both online and on paper. She sent me my book marked up with corrections and also sent a long detailed letter with her suggestions and corrections, just the way an editor in a publishing house does.
If you Google “book editors,” you’ll find dozens of listings, but anyone can call himself an editor. Check with professional writing and publishing organizations in your area. Look in the acknowledgements of books you admire. Use your social networks, such as Facebook, to get recommendations. Before you commit to working with someone, check their credentials. What is their training? What else have they edited? Most reputable editors will do a sample section so you can both decide whether you want to work together. If they balk at this, move on.
Here’s a great article by C.S. Lakin, “4 Ways to Find the Right Freelance Editor.” Read it and follow directions.
There are other ways to get editing help that don’t cost money. Many writers I know trust their work to writing groups in which they critique each other’s work. The trick is to find a group with the necessary skills and knowledge of the genre in which you’re writing, but this can work very well. One can find critique groups online as well as in person.
If your work contains specialized jargon or sections in another language, you may want to ask experts to help you make sure you get it right. With my novel Azorean Dreams, for example, I asked several Portuguese speakers, including a professor of the language, to check my Portuguese dialogue. Good thing they did. My rudimentary Portuguese contained a lot of errors.
We all have doubts about our writing. Even if we have published a dozen other books, we worry about whether the new one is any good. Your editor can help you make sure that it is.
What comes after editing? Find out in next week’s post.
It seems as if everybody’s writing books these days, even celebrities who never did anything literary before. And if you’re not a celebrity and can’t get a million dollar contract, you can publish your own book, so why not?
I started creating books shortly after I learned to write. When I was about 8 or 9, I put together little books with cardboard covers and typing-paper insides. I printed the text with pencils and did the illustrations with crayons. I only made one copy of each, but it showed the direction I was destined to go in. I was always the little writer girl. I got sidetracked in the newspaper biz for a long time, but I still had this dream of a bookshelf full of books I had written. That shelf is half full now, but I’ve been at it a very long time. I wrote an awful lot of articles, short stories, essays and poems and published quite a few of them before I ever published a book.
My first two books were works for hire. The San Jose Chamber of Commerce hired me to write a guide for newcomers moving to Santa Clara County. They supervised the whole thing, which was really a compilation of articles and photos, not so different from my newspaper work. I got paid by the hour. By the time they updated the book a few years later, a private company had taken it over and hired their own writer. But it was a start. The second book, The Iberian Americans, came as a result of an ad in Writer’s Digest. Chelsea House, which publishes books for young adults, was looking for people to write about various nationalities. I sent an outline and sample chapter and got the gig. I got paid a flat fee, no royalties, no book tour. But it was and is a beautiful hardbound book full of wonderful photos and with my name on the cover. I was so thrilled when I saw it that I cried.
The Iberian Americans, which was about Portuguese, Spanish and Basque immigrants, led to Stories Grandma Never Told: Portuguese Women in California. That one was completely my idea, and I’m proud that it’s still selling well after 14 years. But here’s the thing: It took nine years from the time I roughed out the idea to when I held the finished book in my hand. That’s a long time. Much of that time I wasn’t working on the book at all, just trying to sell it. I had decided to just photocopy the damn thing and hand it out to my friends by the time Heyday Books took it on and made my dream come true.
I’m not going to torture you with the process for all of my books–six published now, several others not published and set aside. Childless by Marriage, the new one, has been in the works for about 20 years. What I’m saying is that a book can take a long time. After it’s published, it becomes part of your life. You will always need to be selling it, talking about it, and answering questions as some kind of expert. As I write this, I’m on my way to California to sell books at a Portuguese festival, where I will be pushing Stories Grandma Never Told, a novel called Azorean Dreams and my newer books. Because of these books, I have a reputation as a Portuguese-American writer.
My question for you is this: Are you passionate enough about your subject, whether it’s nonfiction or fiction or poetry, to spend years getting it published and the rest of your life loving it, promoting it and talking about it? It’s a huge commitment, a bit like marriage or having children.
It can be daunting to face a whole book at once. Try writing a short version first, an article, essay, short story, or poem. Is there a market for it? Do you have enough left for a whole book (think 300 pages)? Are you eager to keep going? Then go for it. If you never sell a single copy but you enjoy the process of writing the book, it’s still worth doing. Plus, you’ll be a better writer for having done it.
Shoes Full of Sand, the book, came out Friday. Marketing is intense, taking lots of time and energy. When I picked up my books, I told my printer, “It looks like I can either be a publisher or a writer.” She laughed, but it’s true. If you’re thinking about self-publishing, consider how much of yourself you want to give to the process of preparing and marketing the book. I love most of it, but I’m still working on balancing my various jobs.
Don’t do what I did Saturday afternoon. Although it was fun in some ways, making a four-hour round trip to sit at a table with my books at the Jefferson Mint Festival and Frog Jump (so Oregon!) was not profitable. The rain did not help, but people were there to play with frogs, ride rides, eat humongous elephant ears and corn dogs, and flirt with the opposite sex. They showed little interest in books.
It wasn’t all a loss. It turns out my boothmate and I both worked for the same newspaper chain in San Jose and knew some of the same people. This writer, Elizabeth Fournier, has published a delightful book called All Men Are Cremated Equal. Don’t let the title put you off. She’s a mortician, among other things, but the book is about going on 77 blind dates in one year, and it’s funny. I started reading it at the festival and had to bring a copy home.
My second event of the day, the Nye Beach Writers Series, yielded far more book sales. I recently rejoined the board of directors, and I read at the open mic after poet/songwriter Moe Bowstern entertained us. People liked what they heard and bought my books. The moral: If you want to sell books, go where people are interested in buying books.
You can find out more about mine at http://www.suelick.com/books.
Enough advertising. Have you visited Erika Dreifus’ Practicing Writing blog? She has good advice advice there. Every Monday, she offers a list of opportunities for writers. Check it out.