I talk to writers every week who are thinking about self-publishing. It’s a major step, and each person takes that step in their own way. People seem to be most influenced by their own professional background, and sometimes by knowing someone who published a book.
A big part of my job in these talks is asking questions, trying to see how far into the process they are. Over the years I’ve been working with self-publishers, I’ve gradually simplified the questions I ask. One of the best things that comes out of these talks is a clearer picture of the issues they are facing. I try to put the pieces together, show how they fit, when everything seems confusing and disjointed.
Publishing a book is actually pretty complex. The problem is that we take books for granted. Most of us have been reading from the time our parents or early teachers could get us started. They read to us, made sure there were books in the house. Books are so common, such everyday objects that we don’t realize everything that goes into them, until we have to make all these decisions ourselves. Then it starts to get complicated pretty fast.
If you’re thinking about self-publishing and you’ve never done it, you can have a little “consulting call” with yourself. I’ve cooked down the gist of my talks with authors into the following 9 questions. So go ahead and interview yourself. Try to answer as if we’re sitting across a table from each other at Peet’s Coffee in San Rafael.
Questions, Questions, Questions
- How do you feel about starting a business (or expanding your business, if you already have one)?
A big misconception about self-publishing is that it’s all about literary fulfillment, self-validation or artistic expression. Very soon you will learn that publishing is a business, complete with the need to keep records, pay taxes, organize a business structure and many other details of business life. It isn’t any more complicated than many other home-based businesses, but it isn’t any less complicated either. What’s your attitude toward business? How do you feel about marketing, does it fill you with excitement, the thrill of the hunt? Or make you want to hide under the covers?
- What would make you feel the publication of your book was a “success”?
Do you have realistic expectations for your book and your publishing company? Is the only measure of success a movie deal, a seat on Oprah’s couch, your mug in People magazine? Those outcomes are pretty unlikely, no matter who you are. Can you define what would make you feel successful? Is it a number of books sold, or getting a book review in a particular publication? The last time I calculated, I think the New York Times reviews about 2,500 books a year. Out of 400,000 or so? This one is crucial, so give it some thought.
- Is it essential that you see your book on the bookshelf of retail bookstores?
Another big one. The majority of self-publishers today are publishing almost exclusively for online sales. The difficulty of getting into bookstores, and the reality of what it actually takes to run a national marketing campaign that would drive people to stores looking for your book put this option out of reach of most people. Exceptions are genres that are served by specialty bookstores where it might be easier to get on the shelf than in general interest or chain stores. If you decide to go for bookstore distribution, it will influence many of the decisions you have to make while preparing and producing your book.
For example you’ll certainly need to have the book edited by a professional and you’ll need to pay for a real book cover design and at least a serviceable interior. You’ll be selling at a deep discount and facing an uphill battle looking for acceptance. You’ll need reviews, media kits, some kind of launch to let people know your book is out there. And of course, you will have to solve the number one problem that keeps self-published books out of bookstores to begin with: lack of distribution.
- Are you sure you don’t want a traditional publisher?
In other words, are you excited about publishing your own book, or are you on the rebound? Feeling rejected by your lover? Want to get even, show them what you’ve got? Hey, none of these are wrong reasons to self-publish, but ask yourself just how far those emotions will get you. Six months or a year from now, will you still be feeling the same way?
- Can you identify or contact a niche group of people interested in your topic?
- Have you thought about what kind of self-publishers you’ll be?
Are you a DIY, Online Merchant, or Competitive Self-publisher?
Do you intend to do most of the preparation work yourself? Are you determined to learn how to typeset your own book? This question relates directly to the answers you gave to questions 1. and 3. above. If you want to sell in the bookstores and garner reviews for your book, you’ll need to approach publishing with both the determination to get the help you need to create a professional book. And the budget to pay for it. Remember, this is a business. These expenses are investments in a product with—in many cases—a very long shelf life.
- Do you have a plan to learn the nuts and bolts of publishing?
If you plan to hire professionals the whole way, your task will be easier, although you still need to know how to hire the right people for your project. But all the rest of the details of publishing will be up to you. How will you learn about discounts, shipping, print on demand, and all the other details of your new publishing business? A good place to start might be getting a copy of Dan Poynter’s Self-Publishing Manual or one of the other comprehensive books on self-publishing.
- Are there other books, products or services you can sell once your book is established?
Since you’re now the head of a company, you need more products to sell. It’s very inefficient to go to all the expense and trouble of setting up your company and learning a new business if you will only have one product. Most successful self-publishers quickly realize they can multiply their efforts and gain profitability much faster by developing new products or services. A series of books, a workbook to accompany a text, a service based on the area of expertise you’ve demonstrated by publishing your book—these are all good candidates for expanding your “product line.”
- Do you have a “fire in the belly”?
Publishing a book yourself and trying to sell it can be a tough job. There’s a lot to learn, and like most businesses, it takes a while to see results. One thing you can’t buy is motivation. Be honest with yourself. Are you excited about self-publishing? Are you just beside yourself waiting to see your book in print? Are you obsessing about marketing plans, scheming how to get book reviews, figuring out how to pay for an editor? These are all good signs. You’ll need that drive to see you through to your new life as a self-publisher author.
Nonfiction self-publishing is easier to get started in if you already know your target audience. Ideally, you are yourself a member of the target audience. You have a community you’re a part of, or you’re an expert in your field, or you already have a public eager for your writings. It can’t be overstated how big a difference this support can make when you’re trying to get traction for your book.
How did you do? Did you think of any questions I didn’t mention here? I’d be interested to hear them.
Takeaway: Taking an honest assessment of yourself and your skills before self-publishing can be revealing and helpful in the long run.
Image: Flickr.com / jasleen kaur