Some self-publishing advice

My Self-Publishing Experience

Recently I’ve been responding to various people’s questions on Canada Writes about the journey I’ve been on as a self-published author, trying to offer advice or at least tell fellow writers what’s worked or not worked for me.

So today I decided to dig into this a little more and give writers and prospective authors more of a taste of my self-publishing experience. I hope it helps clarify things for those who might be considering their path forward or pondering their options.

So why did I self-publish?

To start with, I’m an impatient guy and not really keen on waiting up to six months for a publisher to tell me they like my writing, but it doesn’t really fit with their program or they only publish so many books in the genre I’m writing. And if you haven’t done multiple submissions then you might have another six month wait as you submit to another publisher, and so on and so on. Or you never hear back at all, which happens all too frequently.

Plus I wrote my first book almost 20 years ago and let it sit for 15 years while family and life responsibilities ruled the day, so when the time came to try and get it published, I wasn’t keen on waiting years longer.

So, with some trepidation, I began exploring self-publishing as an option. I took a short course from a local author who’d had some success self-publishing and was pleasantly surprised by her candid answers to questions. There were probably 30 of us in the class but she had no hesitation in saying maybe 2 of the 30 would be able to sell more than 100 books if they went down the self-publishing path. It was a reality check I think we all needed to hear, but I was undeterred, determined to get my book out there and let readers ultimately decide if I would survive as an author or not.

After the course I continued to research the do’s and don’ts of self-publishing and yes, I did submit my manuscript to a few traditional publishers (Lesson Number One … don’t have just one iron in the fire … explore various paths … not unlike with writing … often times our stories take twists and turns we never could have imagined and the ending is often quite different than the one we’d planned on). If a traditional publisher had bit, I would probably be in a different headspace right now, but at the time they didn’t (at least one did later … I get into that in a future post) so I continued to explore my options.

Almost immediately I wrote off the idea of using a “vanity press” to get my book published because quite frankly I felt I was being sold a bill of goods. The “package deals” sounded almost too good to be true and once I dug into the fine print I felt they were. That’s not to say there aren’t good vanity presses out there.  There probably are. I just wasn’t interested. 

But if you don’t buy a “package” what other options are there to get your book out.

For me, it all starts with story. I felt I had a good one to tell but I needed an objective outside opinion from someone other than friends or family, someone who wouldn’t worry about crushing my dreams, and for me, that was about finding the right editor.

To do that, I attended another afternoon workshop on editing and was directed to PEAVI, the Professional Editors Association Of Vancouver Island. Essentially with PEAVI, you query their database of editors … in my case I was looking for someone to edit what I considered a mystery-suspense manuscript of approximately 100,000 words. I came up with three names that fit the bill and sent each an email with more detail, specifying what I was looking for and the timeline I was looking at. 

I received 3 responses (quotes essentially) and chose what I felt was the best one, which wasn’t necessarily the lowest bid. My editor and I came to a quick agreement on what I’d get for the money I was going to spend and how long it would take. At this stage I chose not to rush things, as I wanted quality over expediency.

Long story short, my editor did a first edit and after I dealt with her feedback (edits plus substantive feedback on the storyline, etc) she did a final edit. All told, editing cost me $1500. That was the first time I’d spent any significant amount of money on my writing and I honestly didn’t know how much editing should cost. But speaking with the editor felt right and sometimes you just have to go with your gut. In the end, I felt I probably got more than I paid for and I guess the fact that we’re still working together is testament to a good situation.

With my first book, because I was new to the game, I also hired a proofreader before submitting my book to a layout person/book designer. Although she found few errors, I felt the additional $900 was worth it.

After you have your manuscript edited and pretty much nailed down, a printer requires just two things from you … a print-ready text file and a print-ready cover file.

To get a print-ready text file you either need to know how to do it yourself with a program such as InDesign, or you hire someone to do it for you. I shopped around and was surprised by the range of prices quoted to get my book to the print-ready stage. Quotes of several thousand dollars weren’t uncommon but in the end I discovered that for a pretty straightforward layout, $400-500 was enough to get the job done. 

To get a print-ready cover file was another story altogether, and in that regard, I really lucked out.

I had just won a small, local writing contest and was collecting my prize ($100 worth of books at a local bookstore) when I asked one of the staff what they thought made a good book cover. I had the covers from a couple of books in mind and when I asked if the cover of one particular award-winning novel had helped sell the book, I was told it totally sold the book. I opened up the front flap, saw who the cover artist was, then went home and did some research. I sent the cover artist an email and told him that although I wasn’t an award-winning author, I loved his cover art and wondered if he’d be interested in doing mine.

I was surprised to get an immediate response directing me to the artist’s agent (in New York, no less!). I immediately figured I was out of my league but called the agent and told him up front, I didn’t have a lot of money to spend on a cover (my maximum was probably in the order of $1000). His response was that the artist didn’t care about the money … he just liked doing book covers! We quickly agreed on a price and after signing a small contract, we were off to the races.

I told the artist in general terms what I was looking for, he read my manuscript, and within a couple of months of agreeing to design my book cover, provided me with a couple of different cover concepts. I wasn’t keen on the first one but opening the second was a Eureka moment for me. He’d nailed it. Long-story short again, after a few tweaks back and forth, I had a print-ready cover file.

The price was a little steeper than many would pay but despite the old adage that you can’t tell a book by its cover, I’m convinced you can sell a book by its cover. And not that I didn’t think my story was a good one, but since those first days, I’ve always told my cover artist that my challenge is to write a story as good as the cover that holds it together. I think I’m there, but again, that’s for my readers to decide.

Now that I had both print-ready text and cover files, the next job was to find a printer … full disclosure, I’d been researching printers and met with reps from a couple so I kind of knew which way I was leaning. But when the rep from the printer I was leaning toward told me up front that he would offer lots of advice but none on how many books I should print, I have to admit I was in a bit of a quandary.

If I was going to do a small print run of a few hundred books, he suggested a smaller, local printer. Just by him doing that, I was impressed that here was a guy who wasn’t about looking for business. He was honestly trying to give me the best advice he could. 

I had visions of printing more than a few hundred but also had nightmares of sitting on a palette of hundreds of unsold books so I really didn’t know which way to turn.

But along with everything else I’d been doing, I was also gradually building a social media network of friends, family and former co-workers and getting a sense that people would buy my book.

In the end, I took a leap of faith and ordered 1000 books, shipping 500 to myself and leaving 500 with the printers, who provide a fulfillment service I continue to use. 

That first 1000 books sold out in about 8 weeks (well, not actually sold because I had worked out consignment arrangements with about 30 or more bookstores, so although the books were out of my hands, in most cases they were not sold yet).

Still, they were gone. I finally had some money coming in after spending almost $10,000 to get the first book out, so I promptly ordered 2000 more copies. Go big or go home.

And so far, so good. I can provide the hard numbers on how much I make per book but for now, let’s just say that after printing a little over 10,000 books across 4 titles, I was back to where I started financially, but now had a few thousand readers who’d bought my books.

At this point, I’m pretty much back to zero in the bank as I’ve invested it all again in my fifth book, but as long as I don’t go in the hole, I’m going to keep it rolling.

Would I go with a traditional publisher if one made me an offer.

Most likely.

But honestly, only to see what it’s like to have a traditional publisher.

I’ve heard of so many authors who’ve left their publisher to give self-publishing a try.

And I now know what’s involved.

Would I love to be writing more and spending less time doing those other things?

Maybe.

But I’ve got a great team of people who’ve stuck with me now for five books and I can’t even begin to calculate how many people in the book world I’ve come to meet and deal with, and with very few exceptions, I can’t say enough about book people. 

I have so many stories of people who have gone out of their way to help me, those stories in themselves could make a book.

And as self-publishing gets easier and gains more acceptance, I like being my own boss and helping to push the envelope.

It takes a lot of work, but at this stage in my life, I wouldn’t do anything else.

And I did have one traditional publisher come back to me, eighteen months after my submission to them! They were interested but I politely told them that particular book was now in bookstores, including one just down the street from their office!

So that’s a little bit about my experience so far.

I can tell you I spend approximately $10,000 to get each book out but that includes the initial purchase of 1000 copies. In general, editing, layout and cover art cost me $5000 or $5/book. Printing costs a similar amount so my initial cost is roughly $10 per book. Prices come down with higher quantities printed but I tend to do print runs in the 1000-2000 range.

The standard discount to bookstores is 40% so they get my books for $12 each and sell them for $20. That leaves $2 per book for me.

In contrast, if I sell a book myself, I make the full $20. At Christmas markets I can often hand-sell 400-500 books pulling in $8000-10,000. At some summer markets I’m lucky to pay my booth fee.

So there are a lot of factors to consider.

Writing the stories, which I love doing, is only half the “job”.

And if you don’t have the time or don’t like the other half or don’t think you would, including trying to get book reviews, directly contacting bookstores and asking them to consider taking your book, organizing and paying for advertising, hand-selling books, packing and shipping books you’ve sold to bookstores or to readers buying directly from your website, and so on, then self-publishing might not be for you.

But it is a way to get your writing out there, to build and audience, and hopefully make a name for yourself.

There’s probably a lot more I could tell you and if you have specific questions I’d be happy to try and answer them. 

Bottom line … if you love writing, just write. Get better at the craft and forge ahead.

Submit your work to traditional publishers if that’s what you feel is the best way forward, given your specific circumstances at the time.

But self-publishing is always a viable option.

No doubt some can do it for much less than the amounts I’ve mentioned.

Mine is just one example of a possible way forward.