A year ago, on 7 February, my debut novel, Back Kicks And Broken Promises, came out. After years writing and creating several versions of the work, and after thoughtful feedback from fellow writers, I decided on first person POV and a linearly told story. Also, after some positive responses, over three years of trying to solicit an agent but failing to do so, I decided to self-publish and get my book ‘out there.’ Overall, I’m happy with my decision to go indie but, as with anything else, hindsight is twenty/twenty and there were some lessons learnt.
Here are the ten most influential things I learnt about the publishing process and myself, as a writer, over the last twelve months. For those of you who’ve already published, indie or traditional, they might be lessons you’ve yet to learn or they might be things that happened to you as well. And, if that’s the case, feel reassured that you’re not alone. If you’ve yet to publish, maybe my experience may benefit you as you forge ahead in publishing your own work.
1. Believe in myself. When I began the publishing process, and after my novel came out, every discussion I had with a rep from the publisher, every production item I approved (cover, inside layout, etc), every email I sent to a bookseller, I left with feelings of doubt. I second-guessed everything. After all, who would want to read anything I’d written? What did I know about any of this, having never done it before? I kept thinking that anyone I tried to promote my novel to would think that I was just some guy who wrote a book - and, everyone can write a book, right? Big deal. But, once I calmed myself down, I reminded myself that I’d taken this book through three rounds of workshops at The Gotham Writer’s Workshop in New York City, one of the best (my and others’ opinions) and most respected writing programs around. I’d done the hard work. No one panned my work and some of my fellow writers even picked out sections they really liked. I also realised that my book does not define me as a person. The book that came out last year, Back Kicks And Broken Promises, is fiction, while also being semi-autobiographical. In that regard, it is very personal. I also put a lot of my life into the writing and production of the book but, even then, if it’s hated or loved that doesn’t meant I’m hated or loved. As a writer, I can be judged by my work and how it moves the reader but it doesn’t define me as a man.
2. Promotion is hard. I knew, going indie, that I was going to be responsible for the promotion of my book. Even some traditionally published authors have to do their own promoting. From what I’ve read and heard at conferences, it’s the big names - the Kings, Rowlings, Meyers, Picoults, Franzens, etc - who get their publicity done for them. Even then, some of are still doing their own promoting. Many of us who indie-publish still work a day job (and maybe a night or second part-time job) and, like everyone else, we have other parts of our lives that need to be taken care of. So, promoting one’s work can, sometimes, be that ‘extra’ thing to be done at the end of an already long and arduous day. Nonetheless, it has to be done. A Facebook page, a website, a blog and a Twitter account are the minimum you’ll need. You’ll need to build your platform; the 'who you are, what you’re about' centre of your writing and public persona. Do all of that even before you get your book into a publisher or agent’s hands.
3. Print out pages. I thought I was being efficient when I reviewed the PDF copy my publisher sent me on my laptop. Papers can get bulky and we’re in the ‘e age’ anyway, right? On some level, too, I thought I was saving money. However, looking back, I regret not printing out a hardcopy. PDFs don’t always look like a Word document. They’re not brightly lit. It looks like the page in a book and, sometimes, on the screen, unless you magnify a lot, they can be hard to read. Add to that, I probably need a new glasses prescription and I do most of my writing at 3am, with tired eyes, so I was bound to make mistakes and miss things. A writer will always miss stuff in his own work. That’s normal but it doesn’t help when he doesn’t review the final copy the properly. As a result of my efforts at being efficient, I discovered some typos in the final product that I need to correct. And I will correct them but that’s another out of pocket expense with the publisher. If I had printed out pages, I might have caught more of the errors I missed.
4. Have a budget before you start (It doesn’t have to be a big one). When I decided to self-publish, it was the end of the summer. It wasn’t until the following December and January when I had to start paying for things. The money was there for the publishing process. It’s the after stuff where a pre-determined budget comes in handy. Revisions (beyond the free first round), promotion, entering contests for self-published books, paying for book reviews (from companies like Kirkus Indie or Blue Ink) are where the budget will really be needed. Treat your writing as a business, if you’re looking to make a profit, from the start and not just after the book comes out.
5. POD (Print-On-Demand) pricing can be prohibitive. I published through Abbott Press, A Writer’s Digest Company, and I’m very happy with what they did for me and for my book. Probably, the only thing I wasn’t happy with is the retail price of my books. The ebook, at $3.99, isn’t bad. The hardcover, though, at $39.99, and the paperback ($22.99) are not so favourable. It was explained tome that the number of pages of my novel and because of the POD mode of publishing, the cost will be higher than traditionally published or small press books per unit for the reader. Outskirts Press, another POD company, has an option that allows the author to price his own book but it has limits and will reduce royalties. Even with this option, the price to the consumer is still on the higher end. If I indie-publish again, I might go a different route. Amazon’s Createspace, I believe, allows the author to determine his book’s prices but I think they specialize in ebook and paperback formats and not hardcover. Or, I might try a fixed run at a small press or something in the middle, like Book Baby. So, before you publish, make sure the end retail price is not going to price your book out of sales. Good writing will trump a high retail price but we live in leaner times and consumers are tighter fisted with their resources.
6. Learn formatting and industry specs. I mention this, specifically, because of my book’s cover. I’ve gotten a lot of praise for my book’s cover. And, after reading it, you’ll see how it fits nicely with the plot and theme. What I learnt about a book’s cover, when I got my feedback from the judges of The Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards, is that a book’s title should be readable from six feet away. This makes it better seen on a bookshelf, which is key if the book makes it onto a shelf in a bookstore. Unfortunately, I didn’t know this and, while my book is aesthetically and stylistically appealing, it doesn’t meet this standard.
7. Make connections. Writing is a very lonely profession. The people around me - my wife and my close friends - have been, and continue to be, very supportive. However, unless they’re also writers, I don’t think the people around us can truly appreciate the isolated and internal way of life being a writer is. Having said that, however, unless you’re Forrester, Sean Connery’s character in Finding Forrester, writers need support from other writers. Whether it’s to promote each other’s books, beta-read first drafts, offer suggestions to battle writer’s block, writers need writers. We can find each other on Twitter but, more specifically, connections are also made in website communities like The Independent Author Network, Your Book Authors, Goodreads, Scribophile, and others. More than the tangible benefits you can get from being connected to other writers, there is the sense of community you’ll feel. In addition to be pursuing a, naturally, lonely endeavour, writers also need validation. This doesn’t mean we need to be told our work is brilliant, whether it is or isn’t. Rather, it’s reassuring to know that our efforts and reasons for writing, as varied as they are, are worth something and that we are not alone, even if we’re lonely. Through the connections I’ve made and re-made since my book came out, I and/or my book has been featured in two newspapers, a magazine and reviewed once. At the time of this writing, Back Kicks And Broken Promises is being reviewed, for free, by Indiereader.com thanks to a connection I made.
8. Always have a copy of your book with you. You never know when you might be in a position to promote your work. You never know whom you might meet someone who has contacts and can/will/might talk about you and your book. Sometimes, though, you do and you’re not prepared. Last year, after reading Legend, I emailed the author, Marie Lu, to tell her how much I loved the book (her debut novel) and that I’d written a review of it. She was very flattered by my review and since then we’ve had some Twitter and e-mail exchanges; enough, I think, to the point that she might actually recognize my name. Well, shortly after our first email exchange, she gave a reading and book signing with three other authors in New York City. When I lined up to get my copy of Legend signed, Marie looked at me with recognition, probably from my Twitter picture. As we chatted, she asked if I had a copy of my book. Ugh! I didn’t and I kick myself (metaphorically) every time I think about this episode in my life. Having had a copy of my book to give her might not have led to anything but, then again, who knows? The worst part about this story: I’d thought to bring one then I decided against it, fearing I’d come across as presumptuous. Then, I decided to bring it anyway but I left it on my dining table.
9. Enter contests. Apart from the chance you might win or place - and many contests come with some kind of publisher/agent contact as a prize - you often get valuable insights into your book and/or a review of some kind. Most require some kind of entry fee (see Number 4 above) but it’s not usually so large that it’s unaffordable. I participated in NaNoWriMo last November and I completed the challenge. I ‘won.’ I finished writing the first draft of a novel in thirty days, which has jumpstarted my writing and there are even tangible prizes that come with it. I can get free copies of my book from Createspace and there are several discounts for various writing resources, as well. So, contests and challenges are beneficial.
10. Believe in my work. As soon as my book went live, butterflies lived inside me for a good two weeks. I was filled with anxiety that no one would buy my book. I’m pretty sure that’s common for every writer. More than that, however, were feelings that the entire reading world would buy my book and call me out as a hack or fill my blog comment form and email inbox with challenges to every thought, word, reference, you name it that I put to paper. My fears, so far, haven’t come true. My book has made some sales, although VERY modest numbers, and no one has taken me to task on the content of my book. It’s fiction, after all, and semi-autobiographical at that. Even if someone were to come at it/me, I’ve come to accept that (and I knew this before) some people will love my work, some will hate it, and some will be indifferent to it. Either way, I wrote a book that has received more words of praise than otherwise and I did so with full commitment of mind, heart and soul. I hope it will entertain, educate and touch the minds and hearts of its reader and, from the feedback I’ve gotten, it has done that.
So, that’s what I’ve learnt about writing, publishing and myself since my book came out a year ago. As I work on my next book, the first in a Chinese-American fantasy series, I have some wisdom to turn to and an awareness of things to do, do better and to avoid. I don’t plan on indie-publishing for my next book, but I didn’t either for my debut novel. Hopefully, I’ll catch the proverbial break and get agent representation and a book deal. In the meantime, I’m going to tap my keys like the rest of us.
I hope what you’ve read here is useful in as you pursue your writing endeavours. If you have insights of your own, please share.
Happy writing all!