How To Avoid Self-Publishing A Crappy Book: My Two Golden Rules

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When you tell people that you’re self-publishing with a DIY Print On Demand service like Lulu or Createspace, you get much the same reaction as you would if you’d told them that since Weightwatchers hadn’t worked, you’re going to attempt a DIY stomach stapling operation in your kitchen. They smile, nod and think to themselves, This is going to be terrible.

Self-published books and particularly POD self-published books have a bad reputation, and I think they deserve it. Due to the ease with which people can produce and start to sell their books, the quality goes down as the quantity goes up. With next to no checks on copyediting, design or layout – or even whether or not the book is good enough to have a career in anything other than toilet paper – POD sites are becoming a one stop shop for things that should never have seen a computer screen, let alone a piece of paper, priced at just $9.99. I resent the people who decide, on a Friday afternoon, to finally self-publish their novella, The Darth Vader Diaries, spend a half hour summarizing the plot into a paragraph that fits on the back cover (including the big twist at the end), make the cover a yellow background spotted with daisies, put an index at the front and make all interior text 18 point Wingdings. I resent them because until someone sees or holds my book in their hands – the book I had copyedited, with a cover I had designed, consisting of pages that are correctly and cohesively laid out – they assume that it’s going to be like that too, and I don’t blame them.

What I don’t understand is why POD self-publishers continue to push crappy books into existence. It is so easily avoided. Simply abide by Catherine’s Two Golden Rules for Not Adding to the Ever Growing Pile of Crappy Self-Published Books

1. First, Try To Sell Your Book

Self-published books need to be good. I don’t think they need to be brilliant or even very good, because plenty of traditionally published books are far from that. But you do need to ensure that your book isn’t crap. This is not only to prevent even more rubbish from entering the self-published world but to save you and your feelings from bad reviews and harsh feedback. If you dream of writing becoming your career then you should take that into consideration as well: once you release the book, you can’t take it back. A future agent or publisher might be on the verge of offering you a deal, only to Google your name and find out about The Darth Vader Diaries. I don’t believe friends, family or even writers’ groups should be trusted (only because I came upon a book POD’d after the author’s writing group gushed over it, and it was a pile of poo); as far as I’m concerned, there’s only one surefire way to find out if your book is good enough: try to sell it.

I’d assume most self-pubbers do this anyway but even if you don’t want to be traditionally published, it won’t hurt to see what the experts – and yes, you self-pub evangelists/crazy people, they are the experts – have to say about it first. Write a query letter, send it out. Approach agents and publishers. Your aim is to get a full manuscript request and then see what the editor or agent has to say.

I wouldn’t self-publish unless I was at least getting full manuscript requests. Mousetrapped went to one agent and I think five Irish publishing houses, and all but two of them requested and read the full manuscript. (The ones who didn’t said they were small publishing houses who had to be certain of sales before releasing a title, and that based on my synopsis my book’s subject matter didn’t inspire confidence that it would bring those sales.) The agent and two editors sent me detailed e-mail replies, and one called me on the phone to discuss it. They all said the same thing: they enjoyed reading it but felt there was no market for it. One editor also said that she felt the humor was uneven and there was a bit too much moaning. (A huge chunk of moaning hit the cutting room floor before publication.) I felt – and I still do – that this was sufficient positive feedback to warrant self-publishing my book. If all I was getting was photocopied form rejections, I wouldn’t have even considered doing it. Personally, I don’t think anyone else should either.

What happens if someone says yes? Um, are you kidding me? YOU say yes to them! Then you can avoid this whole self-publishing headache altogether. Yippee!

(The High Council of Print on Demand won’t be voting me in as president just yet, will they? Shame about that…)

Obviously, there are some exceptions to this as there are to every rule. You must ensure that you are sending your book to the right agents and publishers, i.e. people who already publish your chosen genre. Otherwise you’d be getting form rejections no matter how good your book is. The other is that some books prove very successful after being self-published, but would never had made it past an editor. This is because their success could not possibly be anticipated and there was no track record. A good example of this is the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. The problem is that there are too many people out there who believe their book will be an exception to the rule too, but you have to act like it’s not. Believe in your book – it’s the only way you’ll sell it – but don’t delude yourself. Test the waters before you jump in, and pay attention to what you learn there. Then act on it.

2. Look at Other Books – You Know, The Real Ones!

POD self-publishing is a strange world. Hundreds of thousands of writers who’ve been reading books all their lives suddenly forget every single thing they know about them. It amazes me on a near daily basis when self-published authors create books that look absolutely nothing like the books they’ve been buying, borrowing, reading, stacking and gazing adoringly at all their lives and, even more amazingly, don’t see that they’ve done anything wrong. Madness!

When you’re self-publishing with a POD, the first thing you need to do is commit to designing your own cover, or getting someone else to do it. DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES USE THE POD SERVICE’S COVER CREATION SOFTWARE. I can’t tell you what these programs make your book look like because I don’t like to swear on my blog, but it isn’t good. There are all simple templates with images stuck rigidly on backgrounds, and they all scream self-published. (Along with some other things but again, I don’t like to swear.) It isn’t difficult to have a cover designed, or purchase cover design software. I took the easiest route: I mocked-up a cover in MS Word and then had a fab designer translate it (and improve it) into a Createspace-ready PDF. I got exactly what I wanted and it didn’t cost a fortune – far from it. You can read about my cover adventures in detail here.

Designing your cover is as easy as 1-2-3:

  1. Go to your bookshelves and pick four or five ‘properly’ published books similar in type to yours, i.e. novels if you’re self-publishing a novel, travel if you’re self-publishing travel, etc.
  2. Study them.
  3. Make your book look like they do.

Ask yourself, does my book look like my store-bought traditionally published books? Imagine you’re in a bookstore and your book is on the shelf beside a book that’s been published by a major publishing house – one with an entire department devoted to cover design. (As mine is right now.) Does yours look out of place? Or does your look as good or even better? This is such a simple – and, I think, common sensical – idea, but you’d be amazed at what people do. I recently came across a POD’d novel that was 6 x9 inches in size but only 150 pages or so long (so it was thin and floppy), was in what must have been point 14 text (so it looked like a large print edition), had 500 words on the back explaining the entire story including the end (so at least twice as long as a regular blurb and the end? Really?!), had ‘Edited By’ and the editor’s name printed on the front cover (even though it was a novel) and its cover ‘design’ was text on a plain color, with no images. Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t have to check through my bookshelves to know I don’t have a ‘properly’ published book that looks like that.

This ‘Study Real Books’ rule applies to your book’s interior as well. Pull a few off your shelf now and flip through them. What do you see? The first page is usually ‘Praise for…’ or a note about the author, then comes the copyright page (on the left hand side), then a title page, then another title page or a table of contents… etc. etc. They don’t open up on page 1 with ‘Chapter One’ like many self-published books I’ve seen. Nor do they have a page number on their first page, while we’re at it. Don’t say I didn’t warn you…

UPDATE:

After this post went live, someone pointed out that Golden Rule Number 1 should in fact be ‘Get an editor.’ If you’ve been following my blog you’ll know that I think this step is not optional: under no circumstances should you put any of your work out into the world for sale without hiring a professional copyeditor (again, no one you know) to go through it first with a fine tooth comb. What I was trying to achieve with this post was a kind of Stop sign for potential self-pubbers, something that would make them stop and think before they click the infamous ‘Approve Proof’ button on their chosen POD site.

Also one of the comment-leavers, Bridget Whelan, added an excellent third rule on her blog, and I wholeheartedly agree with it. She said:

“Writing matters. There is a craft to learn and there are two ways of learning it: by writing and by reading (gifted creative writing tutors can help, of course). Rushing into print is not part of the learning process – make your mistakes where readers can’t find you. Only your very best work, polished and carefully edited, should have the solidity of print. You are still learning even after you get published of course, but your shouldn’t treat paying readers as though they are members of a writing support group. They have bought a product and they have every right to expect it to be as good as you can possibly make it.”

This comes back to another comment I got on Twitter yesterday that went along the lines of, ‘Everyone has a right to achieve their dreams,’ which is true, yes. But not if to realize that dream they have to charge me $14.99 for a badly-written, unedited pile of poo wrapped in a cover that makes your eyes bleed. Despite what some may say, when you put a price tag on something you wrote your writing becomes a business. You’re now selling a product. And just like any commercial endeavor, you have to deliver the goods.

If you doubt the amount of rubbish that’s released into the world and/or you want to avoid adding to it, I recommend that you add Jane Smith’s fantastic Self-Publishing Review to your blog list. I studied it for common mistakes before self-publishing Mousetrapped, and reading its reviews scared me into getting a proofreader.

I realize they are certain self-publishing types out there who will vehemently disagree with what I’ve said. I couldn’t give a monkeys, but I will remind you that this is MY blog and all comments are moderated. Disagreement is fine but argument, rudeness or disrespect is not. Now: does anyone else want a latte? I need one after typing all this!

Judge for yourself how I did with self-publishing crappiness: read about Mousetrapped – my book.

12 thoughts on “How To Avoid Self-Publishing A Crappy Book: My Two Golden Rules

  1. Bridget Whelan says:

    Wise words! It’s not about getting it out. It’s about getting it right and then, and only then, letting it go out into the wider world. If it is ok with you I will provide students with a copy of this article when classes resume in the autumn (I teach creative writing and creative non fiction in London and Brighton) with appropriate acknowledgment of course.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Hi Bridget,

      Re: your students – of course, I’d only be delighted. No problem at all. 🙂

      I actually had a really interesting conversation yesterday with someone over this point. I think what it is is that first of all, no one wants to be told their work isn’t good enough. Of course, that’s horrible. But then when an agent or a publisher says it to them, there’s a tendency to say, ‘Well, what do you they know?’ It’s like on X Factor when Simon Cowell says to someone they sing like a strangled cat, and they say to him, ‘Well, YOU can’t sing so what do you know?’ He knows because he’s the head of a record company, he has a proven track record selecting what’s good and marketing it, and he’s been in the industry for years. That’s how he knows!

      And phenomenon is what I call the I’m The Exception to the Rule Syndrome. Because we have all these stories about the likes of JK Rowling getting rejected 50 times or whatever pre-Harry Potter, it’s safe to assume that for us too many rejections will come before a yes. But I’d be interested to know if Rowling got 50 form rejections, or personalized ones, or ‘We really like the book but children’s books don’t make any money for us,’ rejections, because that’s an entirely different story.

      Lastly, if you’re really serious about a career as a writer, remember that very few agents or editors will make you an offer without Googling you first – once you put it out there, it’s too late to take it back!

  2. Lindsay Edmunds says:

    I learned a lot from the feedback (and yes, the rejections) my novel CEL & ANNA got when I was trying to get it conventionally published. The novel is much better for having been out in the world.

  3. Jo Quinney says:

    Hi Catherine,
    A number of printing companies locally produce POD, I see them when I call into thier offices. I am always amazed by the covers, quite horrific.
    I am very interested in the visual image and the messages you can send – every picture tells a story!
    I adore your pink typewriter.
    Thanks for your wise words.
    I am now going to read about your ‘cover’ story.
    Regards, Jo

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Thanks Jo for stopping by and commenting!

      Yes, POD covers are normally quite horrific. What annoys me is that they don’t have to be: it doesn’t take much to make them look like “real” books. I think perhaps POD authors are so happy/in awe to see their work in print – and yes, it is amazingly exciting! – that their perspective is blurred. You need to set that aside and think like a potential reader, bookseller or reviewer and the easiest way to check that you’ve done that is to compare your book to traditionally published books.

      In my humble opinion, anyway! 😉

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      I went looking online and got quotes from several editing services, but eventually I went to Vanessa O’Loughlin of Inkwell Writers (www.inkwellwriters.ie) and she referred me to a freelance editor that she personally recommended and vouched for. She had extensive experience in both the UK and US markets and had edited several books I was already familiar with. We emailed back and forth for a bit before I said okay, and I’m really happy with the result. I think this was a good decision because not only did the editor have a track record and CV I could go and investigate if I wanted to, but she was also being referred by a service that would stop referring her if she didn’t deliver to her clients.

      Bubble Cow (www.bubblecow.co.uk) also offer editing services and are extremely reputable.

      I think the best thing is to go to a professional service as oppose to using an individual who offers their services independently, if you know what I mean. If something goes wrong there, you have no reproach. However with companies like Inkwell and Bubble Cow, you at least have someone to complain to if anything happens.

      I’m happy to give the email address of my editor to any who is interested in contacting her. Just email me at info@catherineryanhoward.com.

      • catherineryanhoward says:

        Oops – just forget to specify one thing:

        I hired a copyeditor to proofread what I’d written, not ‘edit’ the book in the thorough sense. This was because I’d already had great feedback and had made changes already suggested to me by editors I’d submitted to in the traditional publishing world. However if I was to do it all over again, I think I’d have my copyeditor come into the project earlier as I’m sure her input would have done nothing but improve it.

  4. John says:

    Re: What happens if someone says yes? Um, are you kidding me? YOU say yes to them! Then you can avoid this whole self-publishing headache altogether. Yippee!

    Why? Would Amanda Hocking have made the right decision in doing that? Personally, I think online marketing is the wave of the future. Clearly, most POD’ers don’t know how to do it, and possibly don’t have sellable material to begin with, but that proves nothing against the possibility. The 4-Hour Body is a good example of a successful self-managed campaign.

  5. John says:

    Hi Catherine,

    The link on your Trackbacks (Reading for a Thursday/The One Stop Self-Publishing Conference) isn’t working.

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