Some Tips For Self-Publishers

Having self-published four ‘real’ books, plus a small ebook of short stories, I’ve figured out quite a few things that I think would be very helpful to any aspiring writers, so thought I’d share them with you all.

Use LyX to write your book in. It has the least user-unfriendly interface of any word processor I know of, and produces beautiful typesetting in a variety of formats. The book Self-Publishing With LyX will give you a few tips. Output your book as a PDF – this can be used directly to typeset the printed version – and as an RTF file, which can be edited in LibreOffice, OpenOffice or similar to produce the text for your ebook versions.

If you have an index, don’t do it until *after* you have produced an RTF or .doc version for ebooks. LyX has a wonderful indexing system, but it leaves formatting marks in your RTF output, which will cause problems for ebook versions.

Serialise your book on your blog. This will build a readership – and you can later link every post to the released book. Don’t worry about people reading it for free who would otherwise pay – blogs and books are such different media that people *will* pay for a book version of blog posts they’re interested in. What I tend to do is add an introduction, extra footnotes, an index and so on to the book, so it still gives purchasers a reason to buy. I also revise everything before publication – and here the eyes you’ve got from your blog posts are invaluable, because people will have noticed the most obvious mistakes before you put them in print.

That said, before you publish your book, get at least four other people to read it over – ideally have two or three of them be people who know something about the subject/genre in question, but also have one or two be people who know as little as possible about the subject, but who are proficient in some other area (especially important is to get at least one person who is able to spot your spelling and grammatical errors – which you *will* have). I learned this after my first book, when two separate people (Plok and Mike Taylor) said “It’s a good book, but…” then made the same suggestion, which would have improved it.

Use Lulu for print versions. Yes, I know not many people buy print versions of books online, but some do, and you want every sale you can get. Make your book available as paperback and hardback, as well as PDF. Hardbacks won’t sell very much, but there will be *some* people who want them – some will even buy both versions of the book, to have one as a reading copy and one for their collection.

Do not, however, make your books available as ePubs from lulu. Lulu use an insanely complex auto-checking system that falsely marks many valid ePubs as being badly formatted – I suspect so they can sell you their ePub formatting service. Don’t fall for it.

For ebook publishing, the single most important thing you can do is to get on the Kindle. You can upload an RTF document at kdp.amazon.com. Don’t put DRM on your book. All it does is annoy customers – anyone who wants to ‘pirate’ your book will do so anyway. Learn from the mistakes of the music business, don’t repeat them.

Make sure you price your book above $2.99 in the Kindle version, as that’s the point at which Amazon will let you take 70% of the revenue, rather than 30%. My own experience has been that about $5 is a reasonable price for a ‘proper’ ebook (i.e. not one like my book of short stories, which is only 20 pages long). You’ll get slightly more sales at a lower price than that, but not (in my experience) enough to make up for the lost revenue. On the other hand, pricing the book at any more than that just makes you look greedy.

The pricing advice, however, will vary depending on how fungible a good your books are. Amanda Hocking, who writes stories about teen vampires in love (or something like that – ‘dark fantasy’ anyway) prices her books (or at least the first in each series) at 99 cents, because that’s a market with a lot of competition (and she’s managed to sell over a million books, so she’s doing something right in that market). Joe Konrath, who writes thrillers, publishes at $2.99, and again sells more than me. But I think in the case of Hocking or Konrath, their customers want ‘a dark fantasy’ or ‘a thriller’, and have thousands of choices. If your book’s in a more niche market, as all mine so far have been, you can afford to price it higher.

Also get your book onto smashwords.com – they will get your book into all other major ebook channels (Barnes & Noble, iBookstore, Nook etc), and will convert your RTF into the appropriate, DRM-free, formats. Make sure you follow the Smashwords Style Guide though (you can use your smashwords-formatted RTF to upload to KDP too).

Don’t let Smashwords put your book on Kindle, though – make sure you do that separately, yourself. Smashwords only pay quarterly, *and* take a percentage of what you make, *AND* it takes time for them to get paid by third parties, *AND* if you’re outside the US you have to jump through tax hoops which can take five months or more unless you want to lose another 30% of your money. If someone wants your book, direct them to Lulu or Amazon – Smashwords is only there for the less than 15% of the market who want ePub books. Put your book there and look at any money you make from it as a pleasant surprise.

Get a decent cover. People *do* judge books by their covers, and even if you can’t design things very well yourself (and don’t have a friend who offers, as my friend did for the cover of my Beach Boys book), there are enough public domain images available that you can get something quite striking.

Get somebody to read your blurb over. This is even more important than getting your book proof-read. I’ve seen some truly horrendous blurbs on Amazon from self-published writers – some actually illiterate.

DON’T join in any self-publishing author fora. There may be some useful advice there, but it’s lost in the noise of pyramid-scheme “I’ll buy yours if you buy mine” and people ‘reviewing’ others’ books (just giving them encouragement, rather than advice on how to get better). If you want to see what self-published authors are doing, look at some of the links in Joe Konrath’s blogroll, and just read the blogs that seem useful to you.

Write a *lot*. You won’t make much from any one book, but each of my books makes me between £25 and £50 per month. That’s not enough to live on, but that’s because I only have four books out – the more books I put out, the more money I’ll make. That said, it’s important not to churn out crap. Every book you publish *must* have a reason for existing. There’s nothing in any of my books that I haven’t felt compelled to write.

And finally, if you don’t have time to go through that whole list of advice, just look at this, do the opposite of what she did, and you should be OK.

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19 Responses to Some Tips For Self-Publishers

  1. dallanmyers says:

    Awesome. You answered many of my questions. It is refreshing to read a really helpful post. Thank you.

  2. Catana says:

    Informative, but it needs a couple of corrections. Smashwords doesn’t have any agreement with Amazon yet, so if you want to publish on Kindle you *have* to do it yourself. Also, unless something has changed very recently, the 70% royalty rate starts *at* $2.99. That’s why it’s become the accepted low price for so many books. It’s the “between 2.99 and 9.99” that’s confusing the issue.

    I’m glad to see someone else support blogging your novel. I built my platform for my first book that way. It hasn’t been overwhelmingly successful, but it gave me a boost right at the start, and that’s important for an unknown writer.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Re: Smashwords, they certainly give you the option of having them put your book on Kindle. Whether they actually do put it on the Kindle or not, though, I don’t know…
      And yeah, it should read “$2.99 or above” rather than “more than $2.99”.
      Interesting to see someone who’s tried blogging a long work of fiction, as my four full-length works have been non-fiction essays (though as you can see I’ve just started serialising a novel). Your blog looks very interesting as well, from my first glance at it.

  3. Catana says:

    Smashwords has a channel for Kindle, but nothing will happen right now, if you opt for it. So if you check it and expect to find your book on Amazon, you’ll have a veery long wait.

  4. Mike Taylor says:

    Thanks for this, very helpful. I have in the back of my mind assembling a couple of collections from The Reinvigorated Programmer: if I proceed with that, it’ll be really useful to have your experience to lean on!

  5. Sam says:

    Thanks for this. I’m considering an e-book on my Lyme experience, and a friend of mine is considering self-publishing his zombie saga. Good info here.

  6. Pingback: Guest Post From @miketaylor | Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

  7. Mary Lea says:

    Hi Andrew! I was sent this link by a friend we have in common, and I’m very glad he did so. I’m new to self-publishing, and feeling reassured that I decided to go with Lulu. I’m afraid my brain didn’t compute any of the technical information at the start of this, but I have a friend who is setting me up with a website and formatting the text, etc.

    I found the pricing information particularly illuminating. Can you believe I never considered that amazon would (obviously, d’uh) take a percentage?

    My book is fictionalised biography of St Patrick. Should be about 400 pages when the contents page, historical notes and glossary are set. I have been trying to decide if I need to give it an index, and decided against it. People don’t read fiction expecting it to be heavily annotated, and don’t want to feel like it’s a text book. But the glossary is necessary, I think.

    A question I had is – what would be a suitable price for an e-version of a four hundred page book? You say at or above 2.99 – above 2.99 you look greedy. I had been thinking 2.99 or thereabout in sterling, is that too much? Should the price fluctuate? If I bring out a sequel next year (assuming there has been interest) should I drop the price of the first one to garner sales for the second?

    If the formatting was easier for me, I’d consider bringing out shorter e-books in the interim and putting them on my blog, but I have no idea what I’m doing there (besides writing the stories.) When I’ve got Patrick out of the way I’ll try to work out a schedule for the next year. Am I okay to bother you here, if so?

    And thank you again for a very informative post. Even to my rather dyspraxic brain the maths made sense. It’s helped.

    Oh… also a friend has set me up a blog to promote the books on – I’m afraid I don’t know what to do with it. (Do I really have to write a bio? Why on earth would I want a photo of myself on it? What else should I put on the front page? Agh!)

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I presume the friend is James — Holly asked me about ten minutes ago to send him this link ;)
      I think £2.99 is a reasonable price — if anything, it’s slightly cheap. Optimal pricing strategies change all the time, depending on what other people are doing and what Amazon etc’s algorithms are. What I find tends to work for me is to set the price of the ebook so I’ll make the same amount from it as from the paper book when both are sold by Amazon — I tend to make between £1 and £2 from the paperbacks when sold through Amazon (when you publish on Lulu your books are available on all major online bookshops, and both Lulu and the shop take a cut), so I’ll set the ebook prices so that after Amazon takes their cut I make about the same.

      There have recently been changes to the VAT laws, which Smashwords and Amazon are acting on differently, so it’s hard to be precise about what would work, but £2.99 is probably a good enough price to start with.

      If you’re doing a series, then a lot of people do find that dropping the price of the first book helps — but make sure it’s a *temporary* drop, not a permanent one, and you let people know that. A temporary sale can be useful, a permanent drop in price just means you’re making your work look worthless.

      Incidentally, I’d do your sequel whether or not there’s interest in your first book — a rule of thumb I’ve seen is that it takes roughly ten books for someone to build an audience. I’m only just starting to build one now, and I’m on about ten books (though I flit between genres so wildly it’s harder for me than someone writing a series). Every book you write sells every other book.

      As far as blogging goes, there’s no need for a photograph or any of that nonsense unless you think there is — obviously if you happen to be extraordinarily good-looking, you might as well use your looks to your advantage, but as you can see from my own blog I don’t have any photos of myself at all, because I’m fat, balding, and ugly. So far I’ve never had anyone say “I *would* buy your books, but I haven’t seen a picture of you.”

      The main tip with blogging is to make yourself part of a community, not just shout your blog posts into the void. Comment on other writers’ blogs, and use your URL in your comments. More importantly, link to other people’s writing on your blog, as well as writing your own stuff and putting it on there. Doing that makes your blog part of a conversation, rather than just a promotional tool.

      You’re more than welcome to bother me either here, on Twitter ( @HickeyWriter ) or by email (get James to send you my email address) depending on what the particular question you have is — if it’s a particularly interesting question I might even be able to turn the answer into a blog post ;)

      • Mary Lea says:

        Thanks for the reassurance – I really didn’t want a picture of me up there (and no, I’m not extraordinarily good looking!) Just that the guy who put the blog up thought it was a good idea. I don’t even see the point of a bio, to be honest. I mean, what is there that I want to say about myself? Once you ‘state’ who you are, you have to live up to that. And given that I’m rather compartmentalised, I’m not sure I want to out my different personas to each other!

        Okay, when the thing finally has a publishing date I’ll check in with you again on pricing questions – but for now the main thing is to get it out there and start planning the next one.

        Thank you! (And yes, the friend was James.)

        • Mike Taylor says:

          For what it’s worth, I do like to see pictures and bios of authors. It helps to humanise them, and dispel the sense of the Mythical Author, handing down The Story from on high. I would never consciously decide “I’m not buying this book because I’ve not seen a picture of the author” — surely no-one would do that. But think I’m more likely to be drawn towards and impulse purchase of a book if I have some sense of knowing who the author is.

          • Mary Lea says:

            You know – that’s a good point too. Particularly that without a point of contact it might seem like Mythical Author syndrome if I don’t say something about myself. But, I just don’t know what to say.

            How about, ‘When I am not writing hagiographies of the Irish saints I play guitar badly, wander the Broads and taste test real ales. In my spare time I read and write a lot of m/m porn.’ What would my Dad say? (My son already knows the worst.)

            • Holly says:

              You can include just the stuff your dad would be okay with, if you want. :)

              If you’re not sure what to say about yourself, maybe try asking the people who know you well what they’d say about you.

              • Andrew Hickey says:

                Or just copy my one and change the name.

                • Mary Lea says:

                  Think I’ve worked out what to say, if I can only figure out how to get to the ‘back’ of the site and update it. Now I’m trying not to have a meltdown waiting for the final edit to be done.

                  Oh – and Andrew, do you have any advice on how to do a ‘reading’? I’ve been asked to read from it and give an historical talk about Patrick at a local Irish Society. I don’t know whether I should ask someone independent what the most compelling bit of the book is to read aloud – and I’m too close to it to decide for myself.

                  It would help if I knew how long I was to speak for, and if I’d ever spoken publicly in the last seven years. Last time was at my husband’s funeral. Any advice? Should I write out a speech and lean heavily on notes, or have a bullet pointed list and read on the fly? If ahyone’s done this before I’d be very grateful for some advice.

                  • Mike Taylor says:

                    On how long to talk: just ask the organisers how long they want.

                    There are a whole bunch of different ways to do talks. If you’re going to be somewhere that has the facility to project PowerPoint, one good way is to make a bunch of slides with illustrations, and let those be your notes, reminding you what things you want to talk about. That works well for me in several different contexts (academic conference, science cafe, preaching) but does require quite a bit of prep.

                    Reading from a prepared speech tends to be terribly dull, I’m afraid.

                    Whatever approach you take, leave plenty of time for questions: you’ll find that many questions lead you into long interesting answers. In one event I did recently, I talked literally for five or ten minutes, then did two hours of questions and answers. It’s a lot of fun to do an event that way.

                  • I’m afraid I’ve never done any public appearances other than selling my stuff at a convention, which is very different. Mike (see his comment) probably knows his stuff though — he’s had to give quite a few talks.

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