How to (not) self-publish a book
Updated: Apr 19, 2019
So, today’s #authorschallenge2019 theme on Instagram is “Agent/Indie Advice.”
Well, since I don’t have a literary agent, I thought, “What kind of advice can I share about independently publishing a book?” As I did, my eye caught a book on my shelf, one that haunts me to this day.
The one I self-published in 2011. Trustworthy. Ugh.
I published it through Amazon’s program CreateSpace (which isn't even around anymore), with very limited experience in publishing. I had the common misconception that if I self-published it, the world of readers would discover it and love it and buy it and I would become a filthy rich and famous author in a matter of weeks.
That's not what happened.
I sold less than ten copies in the years it was available online before I took it down. A good portion of those copies were multiple buys from my cousin (shout out to Sarah Jane), who is this book’s biggest fan.
Here are some things I learned about self-publishing a book:
1) Word of mouth is not enough
As I said, I thought that after I published my book, it would just magically get bought without me having to do any more work at all.
(*Experienced publishers and authors laugh collectively*)
I did absolutely no marketing, whatsoever. I didn’t premarket it. I didn’t invest in marketing professionals. I didn’t hit my feet on the pavement and visit libraries and bookstores and market my book to them. I did nothing. I just sat on my hands and hoped for the best.
How were readers supposed to discover my book, if they didn’t even know it existed? As a result of virtually zero marketing, very few people bought my book. Very, very few.
It didn't help that I wasn't necessarily proud of what I wrote either, so I wasn't big on telling people about it after I published it. I'll get more into that later, though.
2) Invest even more in your book
One of the things I hate most is this book’s cover. I made it using CreateSpace’s free cover creator and boy, it shows. I had a very limited amount of photos available to me, and had no graphic design experience whatsoever. (I mean, black type on a dark green background? Come on, Becca.)
If I had known what I know now, I would have invested in so much more for my book: in a professional book cover; to have my manuscript evaluated; establishing a marketing platform. There was so much my book could have been improved upon before publication, but I was impatient (and, let’s face, a bit lazy), so I didn’t.
3) Write a book you would read
When I wrote this book, it originally started off as a “for me” book, one I would read if I was the reader instead of the writer. I began to tell people in my general family and friend circle, and of course there were a lot of questions about it. My particular circle growing up was full of loving, genuine, salt-of-the-Earth Christian folk who were (and are still) wonderful and dear to my heart. So of course, I was asked often, with a happy, sweet, well-meaning gleam to many eyes, “Is it Christian Literature? We need more Christian authors!”
Oh man. How could I tell them no? So I said, “Yes.”
With that, I altered my entire plan for my plotline and overall message of my book, because I was trying to make a lot of people around me happy.
However (and I hate to break a bunch of hearts here), Christian Lit is not my thing.
Now, this isn’t a rip against Christians or Christian Lit; I think Christian Lit is pretty hard to write, and it’s hard to write well. I know so, because I tried to write it, without the genuine desire to do so. To write good Christian Lit (or any kind of genre really), you have to want to write in that genre.
I was just never a big reader of Christian Lit, and when I started writing, I was even less inclined to write in that genre. So I ended up writing a book I wouldn’t have read myself. That wasn’t fair to myself as a writer, or even to the genre I was (apparently) trying to write.
4) Not having an elevator pitch is probably a bad sign
While swapping war stories of self-published book experiences, a co-worker asked me, “What’s the elevator pitch for you book?”
After considering it a moment, I finally stuttered, “It’s about a girl whose father dies and she moves to a small town and a string of robberies break out at her new workplace right after she arrives, so everyone in the town thinks it’s her…”
Saying it out loud, it sounded more like a mystery novel than Christian Lit. It’s not written like a mystery at all, though, so there’s another missed-genre problem. (The Viking says, "Maybe that's the true mystery.") My main character does not try to solve the mysterious case against her heroically; she just tries to survive the town’s suspicion and cries a lot in her bedroom. My elevator pitch didn’t match what I actually wrote.
Basically, there’s a lot I could have improved on, before and after publishing Trustworthy.
However, this experience wasn’t a total flop for me. Here’s some things I did right:
1) I had it professionally edited
My parents helped me pay to have it edited by a professional editor, which I still appreciate.
I even dedicated my book to them. Having it edited really made it at least readable, if only barely.
2) I formatted it nicely (to the best of my ability at the time)
I researched the industry standard dimensions and margin sizes for my book, and painstakingly formatted it in Microsoft Word. Though it was hard, that was actually my favorite part. So at least the interior of the book isn’t a huge mess, design-wise.
Although I learned a lot from this experience, and I’m proud of myself for attempting it, I’m still not proud of the actual product I created. The cover is hideous, the story I wrote doesn’t make sense for the genre I wrote it for, and I needed to invest more in it than just writing. It is a book that was not ready to be published.
So my no-longer-in-print copies of my first ever self-published book now collect dust on my bookshelf, where they belong. They are there to remind me of what I learned along the way, and how I can do much better in the future, should I ever try to publish my own book again.