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Self-Publishing a Novel ─ 5 Important Lessons

It’s been a fair while since my last blog post. For some reason I can’t quite place my finger on, it seems we’ve finally emerged from what I’ve taken to calling the lockdown hangover. There was a period in which everyone was tentatively waiting for the resumption of business as usual and in some profound ways I think it never really came. Nevertheless, a new normal dawns upon us, and although we took some hits, even losing some of our regular clients to a full shutdown along the way, we strive forward.

I wanted to talk about my own project during this time, and how it will link with Chalk and some of the new ways forward that we hope for the company to follow. With my added time, I undertook completing a project that I’d hoped to finish ever since I was a Journalism and Literature student (and some time before). I wrote and published my first novel.

The book, entitled Children of the Storm, is a fantasy fiction, coming-of-age tale. In the afterword of the novel I speak a lot about the process of writing the book, and if you’re interested in hearing about that and in reading the book yourself you can follow the link here:

COTS-Book

www.childrenofthestorm.co.za

However, in this post I’ll speak about the process of independently publishing the novel, because I know that there are many people out there who want to undertake similar projects and are, perhaps, not too sure where to start. I don’t believe it’s quite as simple as step-by-step, because the journey of publishing is just that; a journey, but I will be able to share some valuable lessons I learnt along the way, which I’ve neatly organised into five lessons.

Hopefully these points will be helpful to authors and, with any luck, some of you might be interested in meeting with Chalk to help you along the path.

1. Traditional Publishing vs Self-Publishing (or Indie-Publishing)

Once the book itself is written and the great and powerful manuscript sits bulkily upon your desk, many authors, like I was, can become unsure of the way forward.

Traditional Publishing, or publishing through a large publishing house, is probably the most direct route to getting your book online and on shelves, but, as I found eventually, this route is fraught with difficulties for entry and, like any popular destination, the line is long and there are bouncers at the door.

Essentially the plan is simple, a new author submits the manuscript either directly to a publishing house, or to a literary agent, who will decide whether they would like to take your book on and submit and negotiate on your behalf. The challenges are not insurmountable, but they are as follows:

 

    • Submission Requirements

Each agent (or publisher) has a list of specific requirements in order for them to consider your novel submission. You will need to look these up on their websites and pay particular mind to them for each submission. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to simply draft a mail, attach your manuscript and hit send a hundred times. The requirements usually look something like this:

 

    • An extract (not the full manuscript) of a particular number of pages or chapters, depending on the recipient.

    • A synopsis, the length of which is, again, prescribed by the agent/publisher who receives it.

    • A cover letter in which you ‘sell’ the book, and yourself as an author, and according to most advice online, a fair bit of smoke up the rear to the hallowed agent or establishment considering you.

These requirements exist to try to narrow down hundreds of manuscript submissions and ensure that only serious authors are considered. Understandable, but very tedious when you consider that most of your submissions will be unsuccessful by a logic of percentage. Agents typically only take on a few books per year. You’ll need to be lucky for your book to be plucked from the submission pile.

 

    • Proven Track Record

Like most people in this world, agents and publishers are out to make money. That means that, although they pay attention to the quality of the writing and the story, they will be looking for other things too. Ideally, they would like to know that you have an audience that is already likely to purchase the book, should it be published.

This is great news if you happen to already have a blog with millions of hits, a huge social media following, or you’ve already sold books successfully. But, if you’re like me, and you don’t enjoy minor stardom already, then it can create a barrier to consideration, regardless of how good your book is.

 

    • Where to Look

There are thousands of agents and publishers all around the world, and you can submit to all of them. Knowing where to start can be tough. You may want to look at publishing internationally if your book might appeal more to a different audience. These are considerations you and the person reading your manuscript will have to take into account, and if you are looking at publishing for the first time, you won’t have much help making these decisions. Likewise, it’s very rare to receive advice back from unsuccessful submissions, so forging the way forward from a standing start can be a difficult process.

So, I haven’t painted the most positive picture of traditional publishing so far but, the important thing to remember is that even if you face rejection after rejection, it doesn’t necessarily mean your book is not fit to publish. There are hundreds of stories of successful authors that had their books rejected more times than they can count.

My advice: treat the traditional publishing process like the lottery. Keep buying yourself those tickets, and keep submitting your manuscript, but don’t expect to win with every attempt, and don’t be discouraged.

With all that said, we come to our second method of publishing, Self-Publishing, which is exactly what it sounds like. You are the one that gets your book out there to the readers. We’ll deal with the process in the next few points, but the most important note I’d like to make here is that having your book self-published will not exclude you from qualifying to be traditionally published at a later stage. In fact, since self-publishing has become so accessible, many large publishers look positively upon the process. Having your novel self-published can sometimes show agents and publishing houses that you, as an author, have gumption to market your own book, which is definitely a good thing.

Finally, Independent-Publishing (Indie-Publishing) simply refers to smaller companies (like Chalk) aiding authors to publish the book through the methods I’ll outline below.

I tried going the traditional route at first, but when I began to look into self-publishing I realised that I had a lot of the tools I’d need at my disposal already. Let’s have a look at what goes into the process.

2. Fine-Tuning Your Masterpiece

If you’re like me, you probably already have a critical eye on all the work you produce. During my writing process I had five different readers give me their own feedback chapter by chapter, pointing out any mistakes they noticed and giving me commentary on how the plot was unfolding in their eyes. Once it was finished, many of them read through it again as a completed work and gave me even more to consider. I made tweaks until I was finally happy with the result. But I wasn’t done.

One of the things I was missing as a self-publisher was a professional proof and edit. If I had followed a traditional publishing route this would have been something an agent insists upon. Luckily, as the Director of an advertising company, I knew what to do.

 

    • Content Editing

Although I already had some trusted eyes on my work, I needed someone to look at my content (by this I mean plot as well as delivery) critically. A good editor can make or break a book. Friends and family often have trouble divorcing your writing from you as a person, and this can affect their judgement, even if they’re very familiar with literature.

Luckily for me, I was able to use my company framework to outsource this task. The feedback I received was invaluable, and very different to what I had already gained from my readers. As a self-publisher I reserved the final say on every decision, but I wouldn’t have been happy releasing the book unless it had an independent once over.

 

    • Proofing

One of the most important jobs as an advertiser is copywriting. Copy refers to all written content, not just headlines. As a Literature major, ex-Journalist, and a copywriter with millions of edited words under my belt, I knew that my entire novel needed the level of pedanticism that I would apply to every project I would charge for.

Again, I was lucky. Already furnished with top-notch project writers and editors whom I had worked with for years, I put the task through my framework at Chalk. Paying mind to grammar, punctuation, typos, and everything in between, I was already very familiar with the process of running written work through the mill until it reads perfectly.

If you are writing or planning to write anything that goes out to the public, I can’t understate the importance of the proofing and editing process. Creative projects such as novels may be able to dispense with the cumbersome task of keyword research and SEO (although this will come in eventually once your book is online), but even great creatives make mistakes. Fresh, experienced eyes, and professionals who are not afraid to give real crit are a must when taking your writing project seriously.

My last lesson (and this one was a real doozy for me) was that the final proof and edit needs to be handled first. Nothing is more frustrating than having to redo exports of PDFs, ePubs and sometimes even artwork after the fact. Spend time on finishing it up, because changing it once it’s already published is so frustrating.

3. Judging a Book by its Cover

Since I’ve been selling my book, people have been hammering home just how often books are sold based on their cover designs. All too often self-publishers are overlooked in the face of their competitors because the cover design is amateur. Is there a sadder thought than a brilliant piece of writing missing out on the acclaim it deserves because of poor artwork? As a designer, the thought is too much to bear.

As advertisers, the importance of art direction is very much within our wheelhouse. The value of a great cover is clear to most, but it’s not the only thing that needs to be considered. Let’s have a look at the design ingredients for the perfectly baked book:

 

    • Cover

Yes, we’ve touched on it already. As a designer I love to talk about all aspects of artwork (and do so often). Now that I can add ‘author’ to my list of adjectives, I can also tell you that a good cover design comes from someone who understands the content of the book.

This small piece of artwork becomes totally representative of the body of work, giving potential readers their first and most important glimpse into what they might find inside. Once your book is published, you’ll be seeing that cover a lot, best to make sure you really like it.

Don’t forget, covers need to consider the spine of the book and the back too.

 

    • Typesetting

So much can be said about typesetting that it might require its own post. Graphic design, like the design you’ll need for your cover, has a self-evident importance. Typesetting, on the other hand, sits quietly back, helping you communicate your message with the perfect tone, and only becomes obvious when it’s done poorly.

Typesetting involves preparing your book for print. Important decisions like which typeface you’ll be using, chapter headings, drop caps, reference points, justification, leading, graphic elements, and pretty much anything else that you might find within the pages of the work, all fall under the responsibility of the typesetter.

Like the cover design, this is one of those steps that really needs to be professionally handled when you consider self-publishing. Without good typesetting your book is at risk of looking amateurish at first glance if something as simple as the spacing is inconsistent.

Typesetting is about matching the tone of your book to its visual. Sadly, it’s one of the things that often gets overlooked by self-publishers who misunderstand it as simply ‘picking a font’. In reality, it’s one of the most critical aspects of preparation and also needs to be given full consideration by an experienced hand.

 

    • Marketing Resources

Writing my book was certainly a labour of love, but once I had my book prepared, I had to treat the selling part just like I would if I was helping to sell a product. This distinction wasn’t hard for me thanks to my day job, but it can be hard for authors who don’t have marketing experience.

Products need to be bolstered by marketing resources.

Websites, Banners, Posters, Bookmarks and even Ads to run in print and online are all examples of marketing resources that you might employ when selling your book as a product.

Developing these resources was a fun, ongoing project for me, but if you’re not a marketer by trade it can be tough to continually have to outsource these jobs one at a time. Starting with a good framework of resources streamlines the process and, importantly, as your book starts gaining traction, your marketing (if it’s any good) will aim your customers in the right direction to make purchasing the book easy.

As you can see, all these artistic ingredients are necessary and, for a self-publisher, they all become your responsibility. While applying my design skills to my own novel, I became aware of just how much work I needed to do for my book that had nothing to do with writing it.

My hope is that I can apply these services to other author’s books through Chalk, but, if you attempt them yourself, make sure not to miss out on these steps, as they are super important to ensure your book can happily share the shelf with the top-sellers.

4. Heading Online

Time to talk about the real drawcard of modern self-publishing: online accessibility. Moreso than ever before, getting your book out there is a real possibility for the individual. The big players are Amazon and Apple, but there are plenty of other online retailers that you can plug into. The great news is that you can get your book online for free. Most of these platforms only charge commission on books that you sell, and you can upload your book for absolutely zero fee.

Now this is undoubtedly a fantastic situation for the self-publisher, but before we get ahead of ourselves, we’ll have to take a look at the technical requirements of publishing your book online. There are two ways to get your book sold online, Print-on-Demand and ePublishing.

 

    • Print on Demand

In the ‘old days’, distributing physical copies of your self-published book meant you would have to have a number of copies printed, hold them as stock and send them out once they were sold in various ways. A costly process that requires a fair bit of guesswork when predicting how many books to have printed.

Thankfully, POD has become a fantastic alternative that can save a lot of money. Online retailers (I’ve used Amazon and Ingram Spark, but there are many) allow you to upload a PDF version of your book and market it through their online stores. Once a book is sold, they only print as many as are needed to send straight to your customers. Partnering with their big printers, this can serve as a great alternative to holding your own stock.

Two important considerations here: First, a print and delivery fee will be automatically added to the cost of the book when someone buys it online for shipping (something most online shoppers already expect). Second, it’s your job to make sure the PDF version of your book that you upload is properly prepared for print. This involves following all the steps I’ve spoken about above before it goes online for sale.

 

    • ePublishing

ePublishing is the primary method of online publishing. In this case, people are able to purchase the book and instantly download it without having to wait for a physical copy. Since we can bypass the print process and there is no limit to the number of copies that can be sold, ePubs are generally much cheaper and more accessible.

ePubs can be viewed on the popular Kindles, but also on tablets, phones and pretty much anything else with access to the internet. The things to consider here are formatting and metadata.

 

    • Formatting

To successfully upload your ePub to any of the major retailers the file will need to be formatted correctly. This essentially requires converting your novel into an online-friendly code. ePubs are not a collection of pictures of pages, but rather interactive, responsive text. This means that when someone reads the ePub, they can change the settings of the text size, look up words, jump from chapter to chapter and do all the fantastic things they are used to when using their device.

For this reason, ePub conversion is an important step that needs to be handled by someone with the right software and experience making conversion for web. I won’t get into the specifics here but suffice it to say that your file conversion is not a simple press of a button. Once again, if this is not something you can do yourself, it will need to be outsourced to a pro.

 

    • Metadata

Metadata is information that can be viewed and analysed in the background of your online file. Think, descriptions, info about contributors and ownership, and also keywords pointing search engines and cataloguing systems in the right direction. Of course, the author will know the book well enough to have a decent crack at inputting all of this info, but an experienced hand is important to make sure all of it is in the right place, and some valuable understanding of trends and keyword research will go a long way toward helping people find your book online.

Sending your book online is simple and, as long as everything else is ready, it can be achieved in a matter of days. When you start doing book launches and marketing your book, people will expect it to be available on their preferred online retail platform. Once it’s online, you have access to a whole new way of marketing your book online too, and allocating some ad spend to pushing your book online means that you can target countries and demographics that you might otherwise never have reached.

5. Marketing and Distribution

The final point is less rigid than the others and will look different to different authors but, for me, marketing my book once it was available physically and online was a big part of my ongoing journey. So, I’d like to tell you about my specific experience.

Chalk was able to help me follow all the steps above, but once my book was available, I still felt I needed help understanding the industry and breaking into it. I started by approaching a publicist, who agreed that my book was good enough to take on. Through that engagement, I also teamed up with a local distributor, who approached book stores around the country to stock and sell my book.

Currently, I have those contacts, and a printer I trust when I need more physical copies. Together, we form a small team focused on pushing my book throughout South Africa, and I have the ability to punt my book online through the marketing channels I’ve spoken about above. My journey is ongoing, but I can say that I’ve had a good experience, achieving far more sales than I would have expected and even reaching the top-selling wrung in some local stores.

Self-publishing, or indie publishing, may seem like a mammoth endeavour, but with the right partnerships and an understanding of the steps you need to follow, it is very achievable, and a great start to a career as an author.

Wondering about next steps? Here it is, the elevator pitch. If you are considering publishing a book you’re writing or have already written, Chalk has all the framework you need to handle your editing, your design, and your physical and online publishing. What’s more, as I’ve undertaken this journey myself, I can help guide you along the way and make sure nothing falls by the wayside.

Assisting more authors just like me is something I’m very excited about including in the company offering. Contact us for an expectation-free consult and let’s get you going.

If you can handle everything I’ve outlined above yourself, or with some well-placed team members of your own, then I hope that sharing my experience can be a helpful example of just how manageable the process can be. Happy writing, and happy publishing!

Kisses,

Cav

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