One of the major arguments put forward in favor of going the traditional route – and one of the most appealing to writers – is the advance. I have a guest post on the blog of bestselling UK author Mark Williams which examines what the advance really costs you and how you can beat it long-term even with modest self-publishing sales.
An accompanying – and in my opinion more valid – argument centers on the professional experience and support a writer will get from a publishing house, especially in the areas of editing and cover design.
The counter-argument from proponents of self-publishing is that these are things that can be outsourced for a flat fee rather than giving up the lion’s share of your book’s royalties for the term of the contract.
In Let’s Get Digital I repeatedly make the case that if a self-publisher adopts a professional attitude – if they have a great cover, a professional editor, tidy formatting, and an enticing blurb – their book will be indistinguishable from one that is trade-published.
The aim is not to hoodwink readers. In fact, I don’t think readers usually care who has published the book – they just want a great story. But all those pieces of the publishing puzzle are a series of cues to the reader that you have taken as much time with the contents of the book as you have with the package.
Each step is an opportunity to sell your book. And you have to win at every stage or you will lose them.
You need a great cover (and title) so they will click on your book listing. You need an enticing blurb or they won’t click the “sample” button. And if your opening is poorly written, hasn’t been edited, or the formatting is sloppy, you will lose them before they purchase.
And if by some quirk of fate you have excited the reader enough at one of the earlier stages, and they buy your book before sampling (and most readers will always sample), that will turn out even worse for you when they leave a permanent review on Amazon describing all your book’s flaws in embarrassing detail.
I think too many indies go for “good enough” and fall short. Each book has to be the best you can possibly make it.
When I am putting a release together, I look at the bestseller lists, I examine the top indie books, and I check out the hyped new releases from major publishers. I examine each aspect of my package, and I ask myself if my title will look at home beside them, or whether it will scream “homemade”.
I take umbrage when defenders of traditional publishing make generalizations about the quality and professionalism of self-publishers. Usually it’s a straw man argument based on a carefully selected gallery of horrors with awful covers, no editing, and sloppy formatting.
But let’s be honest here, not everyone employs professionals. And some people boast about how little they have spent in publishing a book. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for getting the best deal you can. The less you spend, the less you have to sell before you move into profit.
However, there comes a point where too much cost-cutting actively damages the product you are trying to market. And these are the terms you should be thinking in. You are a small business owner. You are launching a new product into a very competitive marketplace. Do you really want to handicap your chances? Do you really want to kill your sales before you even had a chance?
The tragedy of the bare bones approach is that many of these books are probably great stories. But no-one will ever find out because the author hasn’t take a professional approach.
When these authors are faced with poor sales, some decide to directly address the problem through examining each aspect of the package they are presenting. Others, however, resort to wasting money on things like paid reviews or advertising, when their product really isn’t ready for prime-time.
And, as Seth Godin says, it’s far cheaper to build marketing into the product than to advertise it after it’s produced.
I’m not a hobbyist. My goal is to make a living from writing. To get there, I look at what the top self-publishers are doing. They all have great covers. They all use editors. They have snappy blurbs. They invest in the products they launch. And they reap the rewards.
I’ve already spoken a lot about how crucial a good cover is. If you missed that, you can find the highlights here. Over the next little while I will have some posts on the importance of good editing, including a guest blog from my own excellent, experienced editor, Karin Cox.
Good editing is paramount, but there seems to be a view out there that it’s a luxury rather than a necessity. This is deeply flawed. Others seem to think their prose is clean enough, they have rewritten their book multiple times, and had a plethora of knowledgeable friends read it, so they can do without. This is a mistake.
Even the best writers need editors. For a clear example of this, see my early post on Raymond Carver and how his legendary editor Gordon Lish transformed his story Beginners into the classic What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.
Writers with less experience need editors even more. It’s not just about catching mistakes. It’s about massaging the text to improve the flow, the rhythm, the cadence. It’s about adopting the appropriate tone, the right pitch. It’s about how you want the reader to feel.
You can’t edit your own work. Aside from being terrible judges about whether their own words are any good or not, writers don’t have the requisite emotional distance from the text to view it as a fresh reader does. They are so involved with the story that they can’t see the flaws.
The whole story is in your head. You may or may not have been successful in getting all that down on the page. A trained eye can see where you gave the reader too little information, or too much.
An editor has the skilled, dispassionate eye to look critically at your work, examining each sentence and asking it one crucial question: does this move the story forward.
A writer simply can’t do that. Not like an editor can.
This is how I suggest a writer should operate:
3. Beta readers/critique circle/writing group/online feedback forum, then incorporate the changes, and if necessary, repeat this step
4. Professional editor
Many editors will do Stages 4 & 5, but it’s not a bad idea to get a fresh pair of eyes to look at the manuscript after you have incorporated your editor’s suggestions.
The crucial point here is that the more work you put in at Stages 2 & 3 the less you will have to spend at Stages 4 & 5. I have some good beta readers and I think I’m getting pretty good at self-editing. My editor says that the “copy” I give her is relatively clean. Even so, the amount of errors she catches is breathtaking.
But more than errors, she advises on flow, rhythm, and structure. She suggest cuts where the prose is flabby, where dialogue is just a filler, at any point where I am not moving the story forward. It makes the whole narrative punchier and tighter, and the overall effect more powerful.
After I incorporate her changes, the story always moves up a level or two. The difference is unreal.
If I can achieve one thing with this blog, I would like it to be this: more people using professional editors and professional designers.
I think I have made the case for cover designers pretty well. Over the next month or so I will attempt to do the same for editors – and rope some of them in to do a few guest posts here.
I might even show you how one of my stories went through the above five stages, although I really don’t want to show anyone that first draft.
I spent around $1000 on editing for Let’s Get Digital. I’ve made 75% of that back in three weeks. That would never have happened without an editor.
It truly is an investment, and more than that, an education. My editor doesn’t just suggest changes, she explains them. With each edit, I’m not just improving my book, I’m becoming a better writer.
You owe it to your yourself – and your readers – to do the same.