Like probably everyone reading this blog, I always wanted to be published. And, like most if not all of you, I had very unrealistic notions of what this meant. Published authors are famous! They are rich! I’ll sell one book and Make It Big! Everyone will read and adore my short stories! Needless to say, reality found me soon enough.
I did have some success along the way. I’ve sold over two dozen short stories to paying markets – sometimes very well-paying markets. My first novel, Eel River, was acquired by a small press, to come out in ebook followed soon by print. A collaborative novel, Our Lady of the Islands, sold to a different, boutique publisher. Publishers Weekly named it one of their Best Books of 2014, and gave it a starred review, as did Library Journal; it was a finalist for the Endeavour Award.
So I’m famous and rich, right? Well…
Eel River’s small press did not produce royalty statements, a print edition, or any money. I eventually took the rights back, re-edited it, and rereleased it through the Book View Café Publishing Cooperative. It has sold upwards of several dozen copies, and received some nice reviews on Amazon.
In its first year of publication, Our Lady of the Islands sold 814 copies. Whereupon the boutique publisher went out of business, orphaning the book and its sequel. Our Lady is currently out of print.
I had also signed a four-book deal with that same boutique publisher for a contemporary fantasy series, The Nightcraft Quartet – but of course, these books are now orphaned as well.
What to do? “Find an agent, get a new, better deal,” I’ve been told. “Self-publish,” I hear.
Actually, I think those are both pretty good pieces of advice.
I’ve enjoyed being traditionally published. I like sending a manuscript off, responding to editorial feedback, and having that be the whole of it, until my contributor’s copy of the book or magazine arrives. Someone else has worried about editing, and cover art, and formatting, and production, and marketing – the whole rest of the business. Of course, despite those occasionally good per-word rates, my income from traditional publication has been, to put it politely, modest.
I’ve enjoyed self-publishing (which is essentially what Book View Café does, though with a team of experienced authors to help you along). In self-publishing, you’re in control of the whole project. You decide when the manuscript is ready; how many editorial rounds you need; what your cover will look like – though I definitely recommend getting professional input for these tasks! You are the project manager, the business owner: the publisher. And you get to keep a lot more of the profits. If there are any.
The trick in both approaches becomes reaching an audience. Don’t imagine that your traditional publisher is going to market your book, not these days. At least with indie publishing, that much is clear from the start: it’s all on you.
And I am not here to tell you that I have figured it all out. I am not rich and famous.
In my “day job,” however, I copy edit for a number of very successful self-published writers. I’ve observed what they’re doing, and how it’s working for them. Though their styles and genres vary widely, I’ve noticed that they share a few elements in common:
They publish a lot, on a regular schedule – sometimes four or more books a year, with shorter works in between.
Their books have gorgeous, professional-looking covers, and clean, attractive formatting.
They use social media effectively – talking about their books, but also about themselves as people.
And the books themselves? They are good. Strong writing, interesting situations, intriguing characters. If you can’t tell a good story, all the tricks in the world won’t keep readers coming back.