Sunday, 30 April 2017

You Self-Published a Book? You Must be an Idiot

Congratulations. You've self-published your book. Now all you have to do is sit back and wait for those royalties to come flooding in while you have a good laugh to yourself at all those fools who have just bought your poorly edited work with the crappy cover that makes every single person on the planet want to vomit all over their keyboard.

Or how about not?

One thing that never ceases to amaze me is how much stigma is attached to something that I do as a hobby. I write because I enjoy it and because I have something to say. For me, publishing (and this website,) is a by-product of that. It's fun to create a cover, have print copies of my work that I can keep on my shelves and give to family and friends as gifts. As for the eBooks, they're inexpensive (some are free,) and it's nice to be able to make a little bit of money from my hobby, though their is rarely much left over once I have covered all of the usual costs that come up with self-publishing. In fact, some of my books, such as Everybody Hates Abigail, have made a loss, rather than a profit. 

I can't promise that I have all the answers, or that I don't have any personal bias, but here are some of the major criticisms I hear against self-publishing, and self-published books, my thoughts and advice for self-published authors.

Self-published authors expect readers to pay money for their book, so therefore the quality should be just as high as a traditionally published book.

I'll address this one, because it is probably the most important one. Yes, if you're going to expect people to pay for your work, then you should offer them something that is value for money. It's a logical enough business model. You offer people value for money, in the hope that they will come back. 

The reality is, unless an author is going for the "so bad it's good" market, then they are offering you their best work. This may sometimes be a bit difficult to fathom, especially when there are multiple issues with the book. The reason for this is the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is where people genuinely believe themselves to be more skilled in an area than what they are, because they do not have the required knowledge, or experience, to be able to identify the errors in their work. This means that an author genuinely may not believe that their cover is ugly, or see errors in it, which can lead to the more troubling fact that they are less likely to ask for advice or critique.

In my opinion, this is not so much arrogance, as genuine ignorance. I certainly know that with my own work, I am far more capable of identifying the mistakes that I have made now, than when I first started, and that it goes through a far more thorough (and expensive) checking process. Is it working? Well, I'm the last person who should be answering that ...

My best advice is to just do the best that you can. Learn about the mechanics of self-publishing, do what you can do for yourself, and outsource what you cannot do for yourself. Know what your limitations are as well. Personally, I think its a bit rich for someone to demand that a short story that someone is giving away free on Smashwords must have a professionally designed cover and to go through three professional editors, but it is a reflection of the author and their work if it doesn't at least look nice and is free from errors.

Self Published authors use stock photos for their covers.

The major argument against stock photos is that anyone can use them. It's a valid point, who wants to see two new releases, in the same genre, with the same picture on the cover?

Buying the exclusive rights to a picture can be quite pricey, especially when an author is planning to sell their book for 99 cents on Amazon. Amazon's royalty structure means that the author can expect to make roughly 35 cents every time they sell a book. If the author lives outside of the United States, they have to wait for their royalty balance to get to $100 before Amazon will send them the money. There is an eight dollar fee for Amazon to send the money via wire transfer, and the author can also expect to lose money in taxes and conversion fees. Smashwords has a better royalty structure and will pay via PayPal, but it can take longer for sales to accumulate. 

Hiring a professional photographer is also going to be expensive. Some people are lucky enough to have friends or friends of friends who work in this field and if you do--go for it. If not, I'd advise against using a picture that you've taken yourself with your phone, unless you genuinely are a shit hot photographer with even better photoshopping skills. Or the book is about pictures that people have taken with their phones.

Better advice, I think, would be not to use free stock photos. If something is free, then there is a far greater chance that someone else has used it before you, and someone else will use it after you. These odds go up even higher if you're using a cover creator wizard, such as the one on CreateSpace and opt to use one of their stock photos. 

Also, a huge risk that authors take when they purchase a ready-made cover (or made to order cover,) is that they cannot guarantee that the creator hasn't used that same, or similar cover, for another author. Unprofessional, I know, but it happens more often than people realise.

Whether it's right, wrong or makes me look like a downright amateur, what I do is purchase the non-exclusive rights to a picture from a site like fotolia. Some of the photographs are relatively inexpensive, and are good enough to be used for the print version of the book, where the image quality needs to be roughly three to five times higher than if I were to use an image just for an eBook. It can also take hours, if not days of searching to find a suitable image. I usually have to find a model who not only one, looks like my main character, but two, is dressed as my main character would and, three, that the background looks as though he or she might be in suburban Adelaide, where most of my work is set. It's a challenge, but I either somehow manage to get there in the end, or I just eventually become delusional and desperate.

Self published authors are getting rich off their royalties.

Some self-published authors do become quite successful--Colleen Hoover and EL James are two examples of this. In Australia, we have Rachel Amphlett. 

Then there is the rest of us. 

The authors who succeed in self-publishing are usually one of two things. Non-fiction authors who are experts in a niche area, or authors of genre heavy fiction who truly and deeply love the genre that they write in. It's not enough to just have an idea for a romance novel, or a crime novel. You have to truly believe in the genre, know who your favourite authors are, what authors are similar to you, and then it helps to already be part of a group of highly engaged readers in that genre.

Authors self-publish without understanding the genre

Some readers are very loyal to their favourite genres, and dislike books that stray from certain established norms. Of course, there is always room for some innovation, but imagine a romance novel that doesn't have some kind of happily ever after, a crime novel where the central mystery to the story is not resolved, or a western set on a far off distant planet where the inhabitants have never heard of horses or guns. It just doesn't work, or at least has the potential to disappoint a lot of readers. (Unless, of course, you're a brilliant satirist and can market your books accordingly.)

The problem isn't that self-published authors stray from these norms. The problem is authors trying to pitch it at an audience who is very loyal to the genre. It's disrespectful, for one thing. 

If you go outside the norms, then you also need to go outside the audience, and find a new one. Don't label a work of speculative fiction a thriller and then expect readers not to be pissed off about it--as I discovered with Cats, Scarves and Liars. The book became (relatively) successful when I stopped trying to find readers for it, and allowed them to come to me, and for them to decide what my work was, exactly. 

Self-published authors don't respect critics

If someone takes the time to read my work and to leave a review, that's a very nice thing to do and I thank them for it.

What I don't like is when someone deliberately says something inflammatory, or provocative, in a review or comment and then tag me on facebook in the hope of getting a response. I fail to see how such behaviour can be considered constructive criticism.

While I read criticism for my book, I don't run out an apply it to a book that has already been published, no matter how well-intentioned and heartfelt that advice might be. You also need to be able to pull apart what comments are going to be useful to you on your journey as a writer, and what comments might be a bit subjective. (The best way to pick a subjective comment is that for every critic who complains about a certain thing, there is another who praises you for it.)

What authors usually do, or would be wise to do, is to take note of what readers are saying, and keep it in mind for their next book. Once a book is published and has started getting reviews, then guess what. The horse has bolted. You can take it down and fix typos, or you can take it down and keep it down if it really bothers you, but you cannot take it down and and completely rewrite your book, regardless of how tempting that may be. And if someone has already read your book and pointed out what's wrong with 90% of it then they are not going to buy or read the new version, no matter how much you improve it and no matter how politely they put it in their review.

As far as critique goes, the best thing to do is seek as much feedback as you can before you publish and apply it. After your book is published, then see it as a useful resource for making the next book better.

There is no room for mistakes in self-publishing

Because making a mistake just proves that you're everything that people say about self-published authors, right?

Maybe. But you know what else? Making mistakes is also what makes you human. Making a mistake is also a part of learning. In my mind, it's not wrong for anyone who is learning their craft or a trade to get something wrong, occasionally.

The biggest problem when you make a mistake as a self-published author is that you are doing it publicly. And if you've charged people money for a book that has some serious errors in it, then they have a right to be annoyed about it, to put that in their review and they may not necessarily invest their money in your work in the future.

As I said, making a mistake is human, though. And I don't think it's a crime for a self-published author to make a mistake somewhere along the way.

You know what is a lot worse, though?

Making a mistake and not learning from it.

And you know what is even worse than that?

Not trying. Of being so afraid that you're going to make a mistake, that people won't like your book, or that it's not worth it because your last book sold less than twenty copies, that you either give up, or you decide that it all just looks too hard and so you never get off your bum and do anything about that book you've always been itching to write.

Think about it.