Publishing a Book is a Journey
When I started thinking about self-publishing, back in January of this year, it seemed too much like a dream. I didn't quite believe I could just upload my book to Amazon and readers would find it, read it, review it, possibly even love it – it seemed unreal. Who were the gatekeepers? Who would ensure the quality of my book? How could I ensure it would find its way onto the right pages and be seen by potential readers? I had so many questions.
How naive I was!
I can’t remember what the catalyst was for the decision to self-publish, but it wasn’t a hokey New Year’s Resolution. I recall weighing the options: I could write dozens of letters to agents and paper my toilet with the rejections as Stephen King suggested in On Writing; then wait for my agent to pitch to publishers who would themselves need to pitch it up the line to the various departments within their own company that need to sign off on a new book. Then, my book would then need to find favour with a distributor. It would have four weeks to sell well enough to be kept on the shelves and not pulped. I would have no say in the cover design or marketing and I’d get a much smaller proportion of the royalties (if my book earned enough to even pay back the advance, if I got one).
I know that I am responsible for the quality of my book, in every single sense: from cover, to copyright, to dedication, to story, to character, to plot, to structure, to grammar, to spelling. All of it. Me. There's a rewarding challenge to that.
Some self-published authors revel in the fact there are no gatekeepers – no barriers to publishing. But Hugh is right. There are gatekeepers – they're called readers. And now they have choice, more than they can handle I suspect, they have become even more demanding. The only way to keep them reading your work is to keep producing work they love.
As I said a little while ago in a post about some of the best books on self-publishing, I started researching voraciously. I dropped in on the extremely valuable Kindle Boards, in particular the Writers Cafe and signed up. I read as many blogs on the area as I could – Joanna Penn, Chuck Wendig, David Gaughran, Michael Bunker, Hugh Howey, Patricia de Hemricourt, to name a few. How had they done it? What pitfalls had they found? What did I need to think about in order to get myself ready for the release of my own series?
It’s not an easy process. Traditional publishing companies have experience I don’t. They have contacts I might never have. They know the business of publishing. Successful self-published authors must consider themselves both authors and publishers, so I need to learn the process too. I need to allow potential readers to find my books. I picked up a book on the area, read it and found it was out of date already – the main thrust of the marketing was the power of free-runs in Kindle Select, but then Amazon changed their algorithms and the whole landscape changed. I read another book, Write Publish Repeat by Johnny B Truant and Sean Platt, and found it tremendously useful. I dipped into blogs and forums, and read more books. Every self-published author had an opinion – they sold 250,000 books in two years, and were living the dream, and they knew exactly how I should do it. Most of them were romance or erotica authors for whom the process is very different – they can release short books quickly and they have a high-turnover audience. Not every tactic fits every genre. What I found most was that there was a wealth of material which was overwhelming.
And so many self-published author seem to think that teaching others how to write was the best way to get readers – that blog posts or tweets on writing are what their readers are interested in – through their blog, their newsletter or through tips on Twitter or Facebook or Tumblr or whatever social media platform is working for them. There seems to be a sea of information to drown in. Some of these authors are reasonably successful in selling books. Some are fabulously so. What has worked for them may well work for me. Also, it might not. Anecdotes are usually statistically insignificant and basing any sort of major decision on anecdotes is suicide.
Publishing ain't always fun. Most of the time, I ensure everything is as perfect as it can be, and then I head back to writing. That's where I want to spend my time, and so do my readers. The Heretic has sold better than I expected and the extremely positive reviews on Goodreads and Amazon have been very rewarding. But there are authors out there getting far more exposure and selling far more books so I need to do something about that. The only thing I can do is write more and learn more about the process. The three months I have spent planning, writing and editing Defiance has taught me how to write an even better book. I was improving all the time and enjoying the process: learning about the story, the characters and the setting, and how to craft all of them so the reader's experience was the best it could be.
To me, the best way to reach readers is to produce a great story. Eventually, readers will find it. I can help that discoverability process – aside from producing an excellent product (a well-edited, intelligent, gripping story with a great blurb and an eye-catching cover), I can promote it, and even engage in the dark arts and the skulduggery that people associate with selling. However, the default position will always be to produce great stories.
Now I write full-time, I can meet my series format which is to produce a 220-280 page book (that's something like 60-80,000 words) every three months. Also, I can work on new projects without disappointing my readers. I can research as much as I need to, and I can read widely. I'm reading Dan Simmons, Iain M. Banks, John Scalzi and Anne Leckie right now, and loving every second.
I am planning and researching for a new series right now. It's another epic space opera, but it will be very different to Beyond the Wall. The first part will be a short story in an anthology I am producing with some wonderful indie authors who write great stuff. It's thrilling to be able to get stuck into a new series at the same time as working on Book III in Beyond the Wall.
Some very good authors have found themselves self-publishing and then being snapped up by traditional publishers. Andy Weir (The Martian) and Jason Gurley (Eleanor), for example. Good luck to them, they both deserve it. I have no idea what my own future holds, but I am enjoying writing more than anything I've turned my hand to in a long time. Continuing down that path will ensure I achieve what I really want to, which is to keep writing.