Sunday, January 13, 2008

On Self-Publishing

When it comes to judging a novel, I'll be the first to say I'm a harsh critic. As a storyteller myself, I have zero patience for writers who neglect to hook me with intrigue from the first few words. By "intrigue", it doesn't have to be very much, either. Consider the following books' opening sentences or paragraphs:

As I left the Kenya Beanstalk capsule, he was right on my heels. He followed me through the door leading to Customs, Health, and Immigration. As the door contracted behind him, I killed him.—Friday

Call me Ishmael.—Moby Dick

In eighteenth-century France there lived a man who was one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages. His story will be told here. His name was Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, and if his name—in contrast to the names of other gifted abominations, de Sade's, for instance, or Saint-Just's Fouché's Bonaparte's, etc.—has been forgotten today, it is certainly not because Grenouille fell short of those more famous blackguards when it came to arrogance, misanthropy, immorality or, more succinctly, to wickedness, but because his gifts and his sole ambition were restricted to a domain that leaves no traces in history: to the fleeting realm of scent.—Perfume

In each case, a setup is established, some unfinished puzzle presented for the reader to engage in. The first sentence and/or paragraph invites the reader into another sentence, and then another, and soon they're buying the book to finish the second chapter.

All of this, however, is contingent on the reader picking up the book to begin with. If you read yesterday's blog about selecting screenplays, you'll know exactly what I mean.

I told that story to illustrate how the selection process works in the professional world, but as a consumer, we also winnow down our choices using a similar set of unfair criteria. When it comes to choosing books to read, the smallest details may seem petty and superficial to outsiders, but those criteria are still used—thus, all such details are crucial. 2 brads instead of 3? Dude... seriously? Yes, seriously. No detail is too small.

When I go to Border's and pick a book off the shelf, it's usually because the title caught my eye. That means it was not merely about a topic of my interest, but also the typeface on the cover was large enough, and perhaps set against a good background. Next I flip through the book to examine the typeface, the overall layout, and the quality of the paper. Maybe I'll look at the back cover. These are all quasi-subconscious acid tests taking place in about 3 seconds and the book must pass them all flawlessly before I even read the opening words. What I'm saying in a very long-winded way is: if you're going to self-publish a book, you've got to mimic the professionals—flawlessly. You must have a real ISBN, a functional bar code, reviews from known publications, etc. And we haven't even talked about the content yet.

But fine, let's say your "script" wasn't discarded: you've passed the "weight" test. Will your work pass the "3 page" test, too? Content is important, but its medium is equally important: there must be no typos, no dangling modifiers, no run-on sentences. Above all, the content must always go for the jugular without mercy. In brief, all writers need editors.

An editor was once visited by a writer asking for feedback about their manuscript. The editor responded diplomatically, "I think it needs to go once more through the typewriter." The writer, being a pro, scooped up his manuscript, said thank you, and rewrote his manuscript not once, but seven more times. The result was a bestseller.

Self-publishing is more affordable now, which means more people will do it than ever before. So when you pick up a self-published book at the bookstore, the question becomes, "if this book couldn't get published with a major publisher, why not? Wasn't it good enough?" And sadly, the answer 95% of the time is no. Why? Because writing, as opposed to filmmaking, is a solitary endeavor where reams of words can be strung together without anyone to sift and hone the material. By contrast, filmmaking must pass a series of gatekeepers before getting produced and distributed. For all the drawbacks of a film having "too many chefs", really bad films don't usually get produced because most people don't want to flush their money down the toilet. Even so, anyone can self-publish, and anyone does.

How, then, can you not be just anyone? In my opinion, self-publishing can work—even start careers—if certain conditions are met:
  1. The content should be marketable to a certain audience. If it's a fairy story for the children of hippie parents, your market might be smallish, so be clear about how many people might want to buy what you're creating.
  2. Do not be your own editor. Unless you know what a dangling modifier is, and when to use the subjunctive mood, let someone else proof your typos and improper language. More importantly, everyone needs someone else to read the words: the trick is finding that right person. (Some will have a great eye for what sells, while others may focus less on what is marketable and more on getting the message exactly so.)
  3. Make the book's design look exceptional. If you have to, get a designer or typesetter to lay out your book. See my other blog post about this.
  4. Make the book look exactly like a major publisher's book. Use a bar code, ISBN number, table of contents, index, etc. Give the reader no reason to doubt that you have a employee roster of thousands.
  5. Test your market and eliminate your overhead by doing a first run with a POD (print on demand) publisher. allows you to upload your book so you only get money when people buy. However, in exchange for you not having any monetary risk, also keeps a steep chunk of the profits.
  6. If you're willing to store and ship books, order in bulk from a regular printer: (a) Print 10,000 books for $10,000. (b) Sell them for $15 each. (c) Break even after selling only 667 books—everything else you sell is profit... which could be as much as $140,000.
  7. Publish a 2nd edition with a big publisher. If your book becomes wildly popular and you'd like to establish some legitimacy by landing a contract with a known publisher like Random House, send them a copy of your newly printed book. Rather than approaching them as a struggling newbie, you're already a published author giving them an option to print a second edition. Plus, since you're already published, what more can they offer you that you don't already have? Yep. Mo-nay.
  8. UPDATE: With the quick rise in popularity of eBooks, publishing strategy has a step predating print book publishing—publish an eBook first, or at the same time you publish a hard copy. Read J.A. Konrath's blog about Ebook Pricing, and why/how Konrath makes more money on eBooks than print books.

Here's a final calculation for you: 300 page book * 400 words/page = 120,000 words. Sound like a lot? It's not, really. Remember in college how they'd assign 5,000 word essays every two weeks? If you laid a year's worth of those essays back to back, you'd have about 120,000 words.

1 comment:

Stephanie Chandler said...

It is so important that a self-published book look like it was produced by a traditional publisher! Every book needs editing and professional design. And once your book is produced, the real work begins: marketing!! No author, no matter how your book is published, can survive without a good marketing plan!