HOW Self-Publishers Can Mind Their Manners


(As this is an obscenely long blog post, you might prefer to download it in PDF for easier reading.)




That was my reaction to the reaction to Why Self-Publishers Need to Start Minding Their Manners, the guest post I wrote for Taleist a couple of weeks back.

Clearly I’d struck a nerve with my reminder of how lucky we are, as writers, to have all these amazing opportunities to get our work out into the world (and get it out there without even leaving our desk), and why we should start appreciating this instead of moaning and groaning about CreateSpace putting “proof” on the back page of our, yes, proof copy, or Amazon shutting down tag-exchange discussion threads. Most importantly and pressingly, we should also stop self-publishing crap, because Amazon exists not for us self-published writers but for Amazon customers, and if Amazon customers start complaining about all the POD’d and KDP’d poop they have to wade through to get to a good read, we’re going to get kicked off or confined to our own little “self-published” area, and so we won’t be allowed to sell our books with the Big Boys anymore. And we’d deserve it. The analogy I used was that we’ve been invited to sit with the adults even though most of us chew with our mouth full and if we don’t learn some table manners – and learn them quick – we’ll get sent back to the kids table.

Apart from a couple of confused folk who thought I was literally speaking about manners, i.e. self-publishers saying please and thank you (!), there was overwhelming agreement with me on this issue. To which I say: Phew – I thought I was the only one! Thank you for restoring my faith in a sane self-publishing world. Going forward I’m choosing to believe that actually, most self-publishers are like me and you – still blinking in awe at this opportunity – and it just seems like we’re in the minority because we don’t spend as much time shouting, “Down with the Big Six! Death to the gatekeepers! Indie authors unite!” as the others do.

(Perhaps because we spend more time writing our books? Ooh, burn!)

Do we need to start shouting as loud as they do? I don’t think so. And anyway who has the time? I think we just need to prove that you can successfully self-publish in a professional way without a sickening (and inexplicable) sense of entitlement, a schedule that barely takes up a week and a voodoo doll in the shape of the CEO of Random House.

How can we do that?

Step 1: Try to Get Traditionally Published

I believe the number one reason why some self-publishers have a misplaced sense of entitlement is because they don’t know how hard it is to get published and/or they have no idea how the traditional publishing industry works.

Only a couple of years ago my options for selling a book of mine on Amazon without leaving my desk or having thousands of dollars to invest were few. There was only one, actually: get a book published. Just as it is in self-publishing, headlines of “overnight” success are what catch our attention – e.g. HOUSEWIFE STARTS BOOK MONDAY, SIGNS 6-FIGURE DEAL TUESDAY (“I was only writing for myself – it never even occurred to me to show it to anyone. But I accidentally left some pages in the photocopier at the library and a literary agent just happened to pick them up and read them, and offered to represent me on the strength of the first chapter and a half.”) – but the reality is very different. It’s a long, hard, lonely slog, frequently doused in stinging rejection.

And it takes ages.

I have a popular blog, I’ve been featured in the national press and on the radio, I have a loyal readership, my work is well received, I have contacts in the publishing world and if my second travel memoir does as well as the first one when it comes out next month (hint, hint) I’ll have sold somewhere between 15,000-20,000 books by the end of 2011. (I’ve already sold more than 7,000 copies of an obscure travel memoir without pricing it lower than $2.99 until very recently.) But I can’t even get an agent, let alone a book deal, because my work “isn’t mainstream enough” and doesn’t have a large enough potential market. It makes financial sense for me to self-publish, yes, but it doesn’t make financial sense for someone else to publish me – still, even now.

One comment left on the original Taleist post by a reader named Holly sums it up:

 “I think that writers who have not gone through at least some of the traditional submission process don’t understand how fabulous this whole new world of publishing is. Spend five years at conferences, belonging to writer’s groups, editing, writing a new book and querying agents. It puts this upload slam bam thank you ma’am world of e-publishing in a whole new happy light.”

(If this post isn’t long enough for, you can also read Why I’m Still Pursuing Traditional Publication.)

Step 2: Stop Self-Publishing Poop

The problem here is that the typical self-publisher appears to be holding one or more of the following beliefs:

  • “My book is the most amazing thing to ever get laid down on a virtual MS Word page, and anyone who says otherwise doesn’t know what they’re talking about …”
  • “My book is at least better than Dan Brown’s, and he not only got published but went on to sell millions …”
  • “I’m only charging 99c for it. Nobody’s expecting Hemingway for that price.”

You cannot judge the quality of your own book, and neither can anyone you’re friends with, you sleep with or you are related to. It doesn’t matter who they are or what they do – the fact that they know you means that feelings are involved, and so even if you insist on them giving you the brutal truth, they won’t be able to. It’s just human nature. Chances are that they are also not qualified to. Your friend Debbie who, like, reads all the time, saying that she “enjoyed” your book is not sufficient positive feedback or enough of a reason for you to self-publish your book.

You need professional positive feedback before you self-publish your book. The best way to do this is to try to get your book traditionally published first.

(If you’re a regular blog reader, skip this next bit. You know it all already.)

I only self-published after a year of submitting my book to agents and publishers here in Ireland. It went out to one agent and four or five publishing houses. The agent requested the full manuscript but ultimately said that while she really enjoyed reading the book and loved my voice and writing style, there just wasn’t a market in Ireland/UK for a book about an Irish girl going to work in Walt Disney World. To which I said: fair enough. I then sent it out to the publishers, three of which requested the full manuscript. Two of them them e-mailed me feedback; one called me to discuss it on the phone. Their verdict was the same: good book, no market. So I self-published it.

Then in May 2010 I finished my first novel, a corporate satire/chick-lit affair that I describe as The Devil Wears Prada meets Weightwatchers. I’d actually finished the first draft that January, but had spent a few months working with an editor to get it up to scratch before submission. It went, by way of a contact I had, to editors at five top publishing houses. All requested full manuscripts. Deja vu time: they enjoyed the book, thought I could clearly write and that I was funny (ooh, get me!) but the book “wasn’t mainstream enough” to fit in with the other titles in the genre already on the market. One editor invited me to a meeting where we discussed what I might write in the future, and I’m using her feedback in the novel I’m working on now. But following the success of Mousetrapped, I decided to self-publish the novel – Results Not Typical – too. This was not a decision I took lightly: the last rejection Results got was in January of this year but I’m only self-publishing it in October.

Of course the submission process takes an awfully long time and I know that in the States especially, getting anything more than a form rejection letter is an achievement in itself. Plan B is to enlist the services of a manuscript critique service. Make sure it’s a reputable one with plenty of satisfied customer testimonials, and that it doesn’t have any ties to a self or vanity publishing company as some of the less trustworthy ones do. They will be able to tell you how your book can be improved. If they suggest changing everything, it may be time to go back to the drawing (or key-) board.

Don’t self-publish until you have received positive feedback from a professional source. There are some exceptions to this rule of course, self-published non-fiction being the best example. Roz Morris self-published the fantastic Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How To Draft, Fix and Finish with Confidence because it was too short to be a traditionally published book, and I self-published Self-Printed: The Sane Person’s Guide to Self-Publishing because surely all self-publishing guides should be self-published? (And I could say things like, “What is CreateSpace’s paper like? Well, you’re holding it right now!”)

I don’t like pointing out exceptions to the rule, because the very people I’m trying to reach with this Stop sign are the ones who will automatically think, “Well, my book is an exception to the rule too.” So if you’re thinking that now, beware!

As for the price tag equalling the quality… well, where to begin. I’m always trying to dissuade first-time self-publishers from charging more than $4.99 for their e-books because the most important thing at that stage is getting readers, and you won’t do that at $9.99. I tell them the price-tag on their book has no relation whatsoever to how much effort they put into writing it. If it did, Jonathan Franzen would be charging hundreds of dollars for his tomes and Snooki would have to price hers at -$24.99, i.e. pay us to read them. The same goes for setting your book at 99c and then writing just enough to “justify” that price. It’s moronic. You may make the initial sale and pocket your 35c or however much, but will you sell that person another book if your first one is a pile of poop? Not a chance. They might also leave a scathing review of your book, so it’ll cost you a few more readers of that book too.

Finally on this step, just one word on comparing yourself to Dan Brown whether it’s favorably or otherwise: don’t.

(If this post isn’t long enough for you, you can also read How Not To Self-Publish Crap: My 2 Golden Rules.)

Step 3: Try Professional on For Size

If you want to be a professional author, i.e. make your living from writing books, you need to act like one. While this is by far the easiest of the three steps I’ve outlined, it seems to be the one a lot of the self-publishers I’ve encountered struggle with the most.

 A professional author:

  • Takes their time. Novels especially need to be allowed to sit for a while, untouched, before you return to them to do a second draft from anything resembling an objective position. Don’t finish your book on Friday, print it out on Saturday, fix a few spelling mistakes on Sunday and publish on Monday. Not only is this guaranteed to lead to the self-publication of a bad book, but you haven’t allowed yourself anytime for pre-publication promotion, building anticipation, etc. It’s a lose-lose situation.
  • Has their work professional edited and proof-read. You cannot skip this step. No, you cannot skip this step. Really, you can’t. Under no circumstances. I don’t care. You CANNOT SKIP THIS STEP.
  • Doesn’t offer PDFs to book reviewers/bloggers for pre-publication review. I review books and I’ve never received anything other than paperbacks from traditional publishing houses. Some of these are ARCs (Advanced Reader Copies) printed up especially for the occasion. If you’re only releasing your book in e-book form, at least offer an e-book that the reviewer can download to their Kindle, iPad, etc. But stop with the PDFs! Personally, I only ever give paperbacks to reviewers and I also include a one-page “information sheet” similar to the ones I get with books from publishing houses. I offer e-books as an option in case they’d prefer that, but I send them the paperback because I want them to see the quality of it, which sends subliminal signals that I’m not self-publishing poop. I know publishers have loads of marketing money and you don’t, but sending out 5 ARCs is better than sending out 50 PDFs. Also stop with review exchanges (i.e. I scratch your back, you review mine), ultimatums (“Please only post a review if you enjoy the book” and “I’ll need the review posted by Friday afternoon…) and never ever ever respond to a negative review online.
  • Protects their online reputation. If you are, let’s say, JK Rowling, then you know that everything you put online – blog posts, comments, tweets – is going to be read by millions of people, and those millions of people are going to know it was you. Knowing this, would you blog about how awful another author’s writing is, or respond to a bad review with swear words, or moan about how your boyfriend has cheated on you again? Um, no. Not unless you’d been taking Career Suicide pills. So don’t do it now, even if no one’s reading yet. Google does a thing called “cache”, you know. Look it up.
  • Isn’t angry. I encounter so many self-published authors who are downright contemptuous of traditional publishing for no other reason than they rejected their book. Why? Rejection isn’t personal. Publishing is a business and the editor who said no said no because he/she didn’t think that they’d earn more money from your book than they’d spend publishing it. Is that really reason enough to dig out a literary agent-shaped chip on your shoulder or throw darts at a picture of [insert phenomenally successful traditionally published author who you believe you write better than]? In a word, no. On a similar note: Amazon Anger. They’re also in business. That’s why they don’t sell your books for free.
  • Is nice. Well, maybe not all professional authors are nice, but you should be, especially as you’re trying to ascend the ladder. I encounter a lot of self-published authors and you would be amazed at how many fail at this basic rule of life. You would also be amazed at how many opportunities have come my way just because I was nice. And it’s here, right at the end, that I am for once literally talking about manners: always be pleasant and polite. If someone reviews or mentions your book, say thank you. I always e-mail reporters who write stories about me after the story is published, and I always offer them a copy of my book. I’m cultivating a contacts list and after a thank you and a free book, I’m sure they’ll be more likely to help me in the future. Always stress to reviewers that there’s no obligation. Don’t send spammy e-mails. Don’t send group e-mails to hundreds of people (because someone will hit “Reply All.” Always. Without fail.) Simply put, be nice.
(If this blog post isn’t long enough for you, read 3 Things I’m Not Doing Anymore.)

Oh, and stop using words like gatekeepers.

Nearly forgot about that.

Click here to read the Taleist blog. If you’ve published using Amazon KDP, you should be reading it already.

Click here to see a chronological list of all my self-printing posts.

Click here to find out more about my book Self-Printed: The Sane Person’s Guide to Self-Publishing.

9 thoughts on “HOW Self-Publishers Can Mind Their Manners

  1. Julia Hidy says:

    Great post. I completely agree with all of your points. An author MUST get the best editor possible to review their work prior to sending it to ANYWHERE. I’d like to add that that editor must have a pedigree of having done content edits, not merely because they happen to teach English somewhere. Or they’re a helpful relative. Stop. Cease! Desist!!! And get thee to the best editor in town instead. Each of your readers will thank you. And you will maintain professional credibility, not just get a bunch of readers for what you think is a good idea or a good story.

    If, as authors, we’re going to allow the written word to flourish, we also need to get out of poverty consciousness: “They won’t mind spending $0.99 for my ebook.” Heck, yes I would! My personal time is priceless. If I take the time to buy an ebook, load it onto my device, and open to read it, that ebook had better be darn well ready for my eyeballs.

    Ebooks are also not music tracks. A musician or band can take a few hours in a recording studio to cut a track that the online music portals will value at $0.99 or so. Musicians stupidly got on the, “I’ll sell a million at $0.99,” bandwagon. It’s taken musicians, bands, their managers and record labels a decade to realize that selling a million is the extreme exception rather than the easy rule. Selling a million of anything — whether it’s music, ebooks, packages of paper, ink cartridges, toothbrushes or hula hoops — takes a lot of people to show up and pull out their wallets, virtual or otherwise.

    An author takes months if not years to research a book, write, edit, and review their draft. Then they will need to write more content, edit their entire manuscript, and then re-write and then re-edit it a few more times until their book (or ebook) is completely ready for publication. I agree: there could be a point where ebook distributors may be brought in by the large ebook sales portals to cull, weed and, dare I say it, control access to how self-published authors will gain access to their ‘clients.’ And the self-publishing party free-for-all will be over; and the pity party will really begin. Most authors don’t want to again be relegated to having to post their .pdf’s to private portals and third-rate book sales channels. No one wants to miss out on sales in the mobile and channels. To play at the big boys and girls table, we have to act and BE publishers, not simply authors. We must maintain quality at the levels where there is no perceptual lag in quality between a big six book or your former or impending ebook, in ePUB or any other format.

    The $0.99 ebook is authorship genocide. It makes absolutely no business sense. If you spend a few hundred to a few thousand hours getting a book ready for publication a.k.a. sale, at $0.99 a copy, your ‘return on investment,’ aka your personal sweat equity, will take years if not decades to recoup. I’m not advocating $24.99 ebooks. But let those determined to sell $0.99 ebooks stay off the professional book sales websites for all our sakes. They are piranah’s – they just don’t know it yet, and they’re about to chew off their own feet (and hands) as well as the rest of our limbs too. I spoke at IBPA’s Publishing University last year. If you want to post a book online, you have or will become a publisher. Please consider becoming the best publisher that you can be, not simply the best author. Otherwise, you are a writer, and not ready to truly become an author. Authors are in the business of publishing and it would be best for all of us if they respect the business they are in. Apologies for the long post. This is a topic I’m passionate about because I see Apple already battening down their hatches and it’ll only be a matter of time before other major ebook sales portals follow.

  2. Jamie Clarke Chavez says:

    I’ve been blogging about this for some time because I work in the publishing industry. That is, I worked for a publisher for 11 years, and have been a freelance editor since 2004. So as you can imagine, I am adamant about the “get an editor” bit. 🙂 But I’m not talking about copyediting (sometimes called line editing). I’m talking about substantive (developmental) editing. It’s particularly important for fiction. At any rate, Thanks for this. I’ve actually written a blog post that references your earlier (Taleist) post; it will run later this week. Glad I waited, because now I can link to this post too! All the best to you, Catherine. 🙂

  3. malladuncan says:

    As an Indie writer, you express my sentiments exactly. I do fear that when the doors at major ebook outlets close to ‘all and sundry’, good Indie writers will be washed away with the bad. It would be great if these outlets could have some kind of filtering system that sets an acceptable standard for their customers – something that writers can set as goals and therefore lose this current belief (rife on the web at the moment) that anything and everything goes. I believe that when the novelty of Indie publishing wears off (and it will ‘cos writing is hard) the real authors, weary, resilient and uncompromising on quality, will be the ones standing.

  4. Lissie says:

    Hmm – maybe. The issue I have as a long-time reader and only recent author – is that I have read complete and utter crap which has been legitmately published- I’m talking really, really bad typos (and I’m probably dyslexic – so they must be bad for me to notice) – rubbish story lines , poor plot development etc etc. Sure these aren’t great books – but the stuff you used to pick up in second hand book shops before a beach trip (before the Kindle!). So I think the attitude that removing the gate keepers will ruin it for the “real” authors is nonsense.

    I personally writing non-fiction have absolutely no desire to get a traditional deal – basically because I know that what I publish is too niche too count for most publishers and because I hate public speaking and have no wish to go on a promotional book tour.

  5. Jason O'Mahony says:

    A lot of good stuff here, Catherine. I think it’s only a matter of time before (technical) quality gatekeepers are deployed by Amazon et al. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Amazon (as is their right. It’s their business) started “recommending” an inhouse editing service guaranteeing copy editing quality. It would allow them another revenue stream whilst protecting their product quality threshold. Of course, you can imagine the reaction. It’ll be the Return of Voldemort all over again. Don’t discount the chink of light self pubbing has brought into the lives of so many would-be authors. The closing of the gate again would devastate them (myself included). In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it got Amazon dragged off to the US Supreme Court or European Court of Justice fighting a (probably) spurious anti-competition case.
    Having said that, I don’t think you can discount Joe Konrath’s point that the ultimate quality control is customers. People just won’t buy stuff they think is crap.

  6. Jim says:

    Just a quick question. Given all the advantages of self-printing, why do authors still want to be published by regular publishing companies?

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      That’s not really a quick question! The answer is different for everybody and there are many reasons.

      Something like 80% of books are sold from physical bookstores, and widespread availability in bookstores is not something a self-publisher can easily achieve. That’s one reason. Personally my dream is to get published; I didn’t grow up daydreaming about seeing a book I published myself on a Kindle.

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