How to write a novel

How to self-publish a book ... and who should be doing it

What is self publishing?

People write books for many reasons, but most have a common goal: they want to see their work in print, shelved in bookstores and - hopefully - bestseller lists. The traditional method is to shop the manuscript around in the hope that an agent and/or publisher will offer a contract. And traditionally, most agents and publishers send manuscripts back with a 'no thank you'.

After a few weeks/months/years of that, many people start to look at the alternatives. Self-publishing is one of them.

First, let's clarify exactly what self-publishing is because and the term and the process have both changed over the years. Once it meant employing an editor, a book designer and a cover artist to get the work into shape and ready for press, and then employing a printer for the books, another for the covers and a binder to put it all together. Print runs were usually in the hundreds, or even thousands, and the finished article looked pretty much like ordinary books in the stores. To get a book into print, self-published authors were pretty much setting up their own mini publishing houses.

Thanks to the internet, self-publishing has evolved in a big way. Writers can upload a word or PDF file to a company who will sell and ship the finished item their website. (E.g. Lulu, CreateSpace and others.) Authors rarely employ professionals to help with editing, proofing and layout, and unfortunately a gigantic avalanche of such books has made self-publishing a less attractive option for everyone else.

I'm not being elitist here. Once upon a time, self-publishing cost a lot of money, and paying 10 or 15% of the total printing cost to an editor seemed like a good idea. Now you can publish a book for exactly zero dollars, and paying $800-$1500 for an edit is an expense most self-published authors are unwilling to contemplate.

More recently, self-publishing has evolved yet again. The advent of cheap ebook readers has brought electronic publishing to the fore, and many authors are skipping publishing companies like Lulu altogether and doing everything themselves.

So who does self-publishing work best for?

• Non-fiction writers with a well-defined, captive audience. For example, someone who holds seminars on specialist topics ... such as chicken racing, network marketing or building homes out of industrial waste. There are plenty of opportunities to tell your guests that copies of your book are available at the back of the room, and you have no competition. In this case, 250-500 copies of a self-published book could be a wise investment.
• Self-publishing also works for fiction writers who just want a handful of copies for family and friends.
• It can also work for established writers with one or more novels out-of-print. (This is where the publisher decides it's no longer viable to print and sell copies of a novel.)
• It's also useful when your publisher cuts you off at the knees, for example by cancelling the last book in a trilogy.

Who should consider self-publishing as a last resort?

First-time writers. Unknown writers. Anyone who wants their books shelved in bookstores, or reviewed in the media. Let's break those down:

First-time writers. If you've never sold a word of fiction in your life, how do you know you've written something ready for publication? I realise this is a catch-22, and I'm not saying you can't. I just strongly recommend you pay for an honest evaluation of your work before publishing. And don't dismiss any comments with fuffery about the reader 'not understanding'.

The professionals will know by page three if you really can write... and they'll often have a good idea by the end of the first paragraph. Even if you write well, the technical details (character, plot, dialogue and so on) all have to fall into line.

What do I mean by 'Having a book buying audience'? Well, even if you write a good book which is technically competent, it could be rejected simply because the publisher doesn't believe enough people will want to buy a copy. It may be that your novel is a science fictional thriller and a romance all rolled into one. How do they sell that? Who do they sell it to? This is where self publishing can work, because you can survive on a small number of sales to people who have little choice of alternatives.

Having said all that ... the humble ebook is slowly changing the industry. Ebook stores have room for everyone, and a professional cover, a catchy blurb and a well-written novel can lead to big sales.

Unknown writers & optimists. If you have no presence in the market, it's going to be tough convincing readers to lay down $20 to $25 for your book. Ebooks fare better, especially if you price them right, but poorly-written, grammatically-challenged work won't find an audience even if you give it away.

I want to point out right now that I'm not trying to put anyone off. However, having self-published three books I know something of the pitfalls and the reality of self-publishing, and I don't want anyone wasting a lot of money on a fruitless endeavour.

I haven't put you off yet? Ok, let's talk about getting books printed

The cheapest method is to print your document, staple in the middle and fold into an A5 booklet. Countless clubs and organisations print their newsletters this way, and it's ideal for a small number of pages (16-20 sheets of paper) where the information is more important than the presentation.

At the other end of the scale you have hardback books with those nifty little placemarker ribbons and your name in gold foil on the cover. (They always look like Readers Digest condensed books to me, but then again I write science fiction so what would I know?) These are ideal for memoirs, where you want them to last through several generations.

In between these extremes you have a variety of sizes, from A-format mass-market paperback up to Crown Royal. A lot of self-published and small press books use A5 (which is A4 cut in half). A or B format are the most common, with 'B' format used for more expensive paperbacks from well-known authors, and 'A' used for just about everything.

Often, a book will appear in trade (B) paperback size first, only to be re-released as a mass-market (A) size a year or so later. Why? Because trade paperbacks command a higher price, allowing the publisher to recoup more on each one sold. Readers won't pay big dollars for unknown authors though, so don't rush out and print your self-published title in the biggest format you can find.

Publishers use perfect binding (a kind of hot-melt glue) to hold the book together. I recommend this method if you want your book to look professional. Alternatives include spiral binding and DIY comb binding, which are okay for how-to manuals, but not for fiction. You can pay a print shop or a specialist to run your printed books through a perfect binder... bear in mind the cover flats will have to be at least 5mm bigger all round to allow for cropping afterwards. (Books are bound then cropped to size. This leaves nice even edges all round.) A typical beginner's mistake is to roll up to the binders with an A5 sized book and A4 sized covers - once wrapped around the book, the cover is too short to reach the edges, and you still won't have enough left over for cropping. The answer is to print the book pages smaller, or the covers bigger.

Get the professionals to do it.

I've mentioned binding, finished sizes and printing books out, but I haven't covered professional printers and print on demand (POD). With the former, a company will accept a file from you containing the book (ready for print) and another containing the cover. How you get the book and cover art to this stage is up to you, but I recommend professional help if you have no idea what you're doing.

If you go ahead with the printer's quote, they will produce the specified quantity of books and ship them to your delivery address. You still have to sell them, which is covered in another article.

On the other hand, if you go the POD route you can expect to pay a setup fee but afterwards you can order books one at a time. Many of these companies will also list your book with online retailers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, giving you a way to sell online. Amazon's Createspace seem to be getting good press from those who have used them. And if you want to set yourself up as a publisher with your own ISBNs, your own imprint and so on, then Lightning Source would be my choice. (They now print in Australia, as well as the UK and US.)

Please bear in mind that self-published books (particularly fiction) are regarded with suspicion by booksellers, reviewers and other industry professionals. A book from a major publisher is guaranteed to have gone through one or more filters, even if it's just a tick in the 'Big Name Author' box. On the other hand, a self-published 'novel' could be the same shopping list printed over and over on 400 consecutive pages... and no book store owner is going to sit down and read every self-published book offered to them. Plus many of them will only deal with distributors, who in turn only deal with established publishers.

So, if you want your book stocked in more than just your local bookstore, self-publishing is not the way to go. POD publishers is a term now used to lump together all the companies which will happily print illiterate scribble provided they get paid. Cluey bookstore owners know the names of all these companies, and will be reluctant to order books from them unless it's one copy for a customer who pays up front. (One of the problems with POD is that bookstores cannot return unsold books, something all major publishers allow.)

Please remember that none of my articles are meant to discourage. In fact, they're all written for the me of ten years ago, the writer who was ready to take the next step but didn't know what that step was.

About the author: Simon Haynes is the author of over 25 novels. He also designed and created yWriter.

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