You want to self-publish a book. After all, it’s so much easier than sending proposals to agents and publishers, you get to control the process, and you’ll keep more of your earnings. And all you have to do is churn out 50,000 words or so, slap on a cover you created in Canva, and upload it to Amazon!
I’m in the process of self-publishing my newest book, How to Do It All: The Revolutionary Plan to Create a Full, Meaningful Life — While Only Occasionally Wanting to Poke Your Eyes Out With a Sharpie. I’ve self-published several books, and they sell okay, but this is the first time I’ve committed to doing it like I mean it.
Learning how much goes into writing, producing, and launching a self-published book that looks pro and gets attention has been an eye-opening experience. Here are the top 7 facts that shocked the heck out of me:
1. It’s not cheap. (Really not cheap.)I always thought I was pretty good at DIY when it comes to cover design, editing, and marketing. But if that’s the case, I realized, why are none of my books bestsellers? They sell fine, but you won’t be seeing any of them in the New York Times.
So this time, I decided to hire a launch team; get a cover designed from scratch; hire a professional proofreader; pay a designer to create the free downloadable worksheets; and spring for e-book and print layout pros.
My costs so far? Over $10,000. (No, there is not a missing decimal.) And of course, the writing, production, and marketing of this book has been so all-encompassing that I haven’t done any actual paying work, outside a couple small courses I teach, since the beginning of 2016. I’m just crossing my fingers that the professional help I hired will pay off in terms of readers, reviews, publicity…and enough cold, hard cash to earn back my expenses and help pay the bills.
2. You’re not as good a writer as you think.We writers love to think our first drafts are sparkling and perfect. Not so.
I ran various versions of the manuscript by my business partner, writer husband, 20 beta readers, and proofreader. Through their feedback, I discovered I repeated myself, used too many em-dashes, told lame jokes, swore too much, and had the chapters in the wrong order. I revised the book from front to back several times over, and each time I printed the whole manuscript out again and went over it with a red pen.
I had thought my original draft was pretty awesome, but looking back on it now, I see that it was actually flabby and weak. Even the best writers need an outside perspective on their work to create the strongest book possible.
[6 Things to Consider After You Write Your First Draft]
3. Looks do matter.It’s what’s on the inside that counts, right? Excuse me while I LOL.
For my previous books, I did hire a cover designer, but to save money I chose the option where I would send him a stock image and he would create a cover with it. They usually turn out pretty nice…but if you put my covers next to a book from, say, HarperCollins or Penguin, they wouldn’t even compare.
This time, I shelled out the $480 to have the e-book and print covers designed from scratch. My designer sent me a form to fill out about my preferences in color, fonts, style, and images. I researched the top-selling self-help books and passed along what I learned from them; for example, they tend to have bright but warm colors like yellow, orange, and red, and many of them are text-only. The result: A gorgeous, pro cover.
I now have an editor at a big, well-known women’s magazine interested in running an article about the book, and have been getting mentions in other print pubs as well. I’m sure the beautiful cover I’ve been sending editors has something to do with it. After all, my last book was just as good (if the reviews are any indication), but never got any interest from big media players with its stock-art cover.
4. Only a small percentage of the work involved is actually writing.We’re writers, so we want to…well, write. The big shocker is that when you self-publish a book, writing is only a small part of the process.
It took me four weeks to write the first draft—and eight weeks to edit it. Not only that, but while I was writing the book I was also working with the cover designer, hiring the other pros, gathering and dealing with beta readers, and starting and managing the Facebook Group.
I’d say the actual writing of the book has accounted for only about a quarter of the work involved. Whoda thunk?
5. You do need a platform. (Sorry.)One reason so many writers want to self-publish books is that a traditional publisher won’t take you if you don’t have a platform—that is, a built-in base of fans who are ready to buy your book. The (misguided) idea self-publishers have is that if they do it themselves, they don’t need to bother with building a platform.
Well, that’s true—if you don’t want to sell any books. But I’ve discovered that having a platform is key even if you’re self-publishing. My beta readers, the fans on the early notification list, and most of the people on the book’s Facebook Group came from among the 8,000 subscribers on the Renegade Writer email list. Without that original platform, I would have…no one.
These wonderful fans have offered their advice and opinions on book cover design and more…offered to hand-sell the book to their local bookstores…promised to leave reviews…sent me leads…asked to write articles about the book…and are first in line to buy How to Do It All when it’s out.
The surprising lesson here: Build the audience, then write the book.
6. Mistakes are OK.We need to be perfect in all ways if we want readers to think of us as experts and buy our books. At least, that’s what I thought at the beginning of the process.
So imagine my surprise when I accidentally sent the Advance Reading Copy to all 8,000 members of my email list instead of just my 20 beta readers…and got only the nicest responses to my snafu! Many readers wrote to say they would buy the book when it comes out even though they got a free copy, and I also received a ton of positive comments about the book.
Mistakes show you’re a real human being, and no one will not buy your book because you messed up. The only place you need to freak out about errors is in your copy; multiple typos will turn off readers!
[How Can the Average Writer Make Money Self-Publishing E-Books?]
7. It’s not all about you.When we write books, the temptation is to pull everything out of our you-know-whats. After all, it’s our book and we are the expert.
So I was flabbergasted at how much research I ended up doing. I was tempted to simply rely on my own knowledge and ideas, but because I wanted How to Do It All to be an authoritative work, I ended up pulling in tons of research and studies that backed up my ideas.
After all, what’s more convincing: To tell readers that we watch too much TV and should do it less (Says who? Says me!)…or to find a stat revealing exactly how much TV the average American indulges in every week and how it affects our motivation? And when, in my research, I discovered a few articles about dying people’s top regrets, the facts presented there perfectly bolstered my argument that we should spend more time with our loved ones.
So that’s what I’ve learned through this journey so far: Self-publishing is not a quick, easy way to make a bundle, no matter how many books and newsletters from “gurus” you read promising instant riches to self-publishers. It’s work. It’s satisfying, fun work…but also expensive, time-consuming, and occasionally stressful.
But how much sweeter the rewards will be when we know we’ve put our all into making our book the best it can be.