Jumping Into Self-Publishing: An Author's Perspective

08/29/2016 11:28 am ET Updated Aug 30, 2017

I'm what you'd call a midlist author: every couple years, I publish a book that does reasonably well. I haven't been to the top of the bestseller lists, but (he said dryly) my books have ended up on the front cover of a couple prominent remainder catalogs. I earn royalties and advances, but I also have a day job.

After years of publishing books via traditional publishing houses, I recently decided to dip a toe into self-publishing. One month after publishing the result, "Somebody's Trying to Kill Me," in paperback and on Kindle, I've already learned some lessons that potentially apply to anyone considering the do-it-yourself route.

The Book

Over the years, I've published short stories in a number of crime-fiction magazines (including Thuglit, Shotgun Honey, Out of the Gutter, and others). Earlier this year, I realized that I'd produced enough material for a full-fledged collection. I made the rounds of publishers, but none bit. "Right now, short story collections are a tough sell for us, so we're going to pass," one editorial director told me.

The 17 stories that ended up in the collection have a little something for everyone, as far as crime fiction goes. In the opening tale, a bounty hunter tears through the underworld in search of a pair of stolen assault rifles. In another one, a college dropout trades textbooks and keggers for ripping off mob dealers. The title story, a novella, takes place in Brooklyn, where a penniless novelist finds himself tangled in a mystery involving tattooed freaks, damaged supermodels, and hipsters who can't shoot straight.

Once I made the decision to self-publish, I had to choose the right platform. I pulled up the royalty statements from my past few traditionally published books and saw that 99 percent of my e-book sales came from Amazon Kindle, with Barnes & Noble and Apple coming in a very distant second and third, respectively.

This is an important metric because Amazon offers writers a variety of promotional tools via its Kindle Direct Publishing platform, provided the published e-book is exclusive to Kindle. These tools include the "opportunity" to reduce your work's price, or even give it away for free. (More on these options in my next column; if you're considering self-publishing, you should know that each of these tools features significant upsides, but just-as-significant drawbacks.)

That lack of sales on alternative e-platforms, combined with my desire to play around with those Kindle-centric tools, led me to go with Amazon. I also created an account on CreateSpace, which lets you design and publish your own paperbacks; Amazon owns it. Given the company's enormous reach, no matter so many authors have a love/hate relationship with it.

Although self-publishing a paperback is a lot of work, creating a book on CreateSpace is free; the subsidiary just takes a chunk of your royalties on every copy you sell. Depending on your book's cover price (not to mention its popularity), those royalties can prove significant; in light of that, producing a paperback is worth it.

When setting everything up, I consulted with a few author friends who had also gone the self-publishing route at some point. Here's a compendium of their advice, mixed with some things I learned:

Get a Good Cover

You can't judge a book by its cover, goes the old cliché. But that's exactly how a lot of potential readers will evaluate whether to purchase your work. Even a cursory tour through online bookstores reveals a number of covers that could have benefitted from a little professional attention; the use of stock art and tiny fonts is pervasive, as are design errors that would give an art director a rage-induced aneurysm. (Tiny fonts will virtually disappear in Amazon's thumbnail preview images, and that is a disaster if you want any potential reader to actually absorb and remember your title.)

With my book, I was fortunate enough to have editor and designer Michael Bailey apply his considerable talents to making a cover for me (it was my reward for funding the Kickstarter for Gamut magazine). I don't believe that every self-published author needs to procure the services of a professional designer in order to create a great cover; but a friend (or even a cheaper service) that will provide you with professional, strong typography and imagery is key.

Do Layout Properly

Aside from a bad cover, the other sales-killer is poor layout. If you just upload your Microsoft Word document to CreateSpace or Kindle, the result is a mess of uneven tabs and odd page-breaks. You could always pay a professional to handle layout for you, but if you're adverse to spending the cash, you can create an impeccable layout on your own, provided you're willing to put up with a lot of frustration. Amazon itself offers a solid formatting guide, but other sites online can also help.

On the paperback front, CreateSpace will send you a physical proof of your book for a couple of dollars. Pay the couple of dollars. I discovered that even the Website's digital proofing system, although quite good, still sometimes misses things that are glaringly obvious on paper, such as too-tight margins.

Get a Copyeditor (and a Couple Readers)

Releasing a book of previously published material comes with one big advantage: squads of editors and copyeditors at various magazines have already picked over your prose, negating the need for an intensive copy-edit. Because I'm paranoid, I had someone give the text another once-over before moving to the layout stage. If you're considering self-publishing, procuring the services of a copyeditor is essential; readers might not pick up on all of your metaphors and jokes, but they will zero on grammatical and spelling errors with the intensity of a heat-seeking missile.

In addition to a copyeditor, a couple of "regular" readers will help you identify where your manuscript needs some additional work. Even though editors had already gone through the majority of short stories in my collection, having a few friends read the manuscript proved beneficial, alerting me to ways each tale could become stronger.

Start Seeding the Ground Early

No book succeeds in a vacuum. I imagine a lot of e-book writers hit "Publish" on their work and sit back, expecting the sales to roll in. Given the gargantuan size of the e-book market, though, the chance of hundreds of writers stumbling upon your book is laughably small. Before you publish, you have to "seed the ground," so to speak, by designing a rollout campaign for your book.

A rollout campaign, of course, is what traditional publishers do all the time. As a self-published author, you're taking on a marketing team's job. No, it's not easy. Yes, there's a likelihood that you'll mess up in some spectacular way. But I've seen traditional publishers' marketing arms whiff just as badly as an individual armed with a laptop; at least this way you have some control over the process.

Start Sending Advance Copies: The key to self-publishing success is reviews. The more reviews, the likelier that people will take a chance on your book, even if they haven't heard your name before. If you want a load of personal reviews on the heels of your book's release, send out advance copies to people. Ask them (nicely) to leave a review once your book comes out.

(Side note: personal reviews are important because lots of Web publications and blogs simply won't review self-published books. In a certain way, you can't blame them: it would deluge the editors' in-boxes with all sorts of poorly written works. But it's frustrating nonetheless.)

Get Blogger Attention: There are vibrant blog communities devoted to discussing various book genres. An interview or a review by a prominent blogger may not spike sales of your book, but it will help get the word out; although it's difficult to parse out the various influences on my book's sales behavior, I attribute a significant percentage to my interviews by S.W. Lauden and Paul D. Brazill, both of whom have much-read crime-fiction blogs.

Build Out Your Social Media: Start a Twitter feed, if you haven't already. Launch a Facebook page devoted to your work. Even a Snapchat or Instagram account may prove useful later. Just keep in mind one thing: only 20 percent (at most) of the content you produce in those channels should focus on promoting the book; the other 80 percent should be content your audience will find useful, funny, or interesting. Step into your audience's shoes: nobody likes a relentless sales message, especially if it's right in their face on social media.

Activate Pre-Sales on Kindle: Give people the opportunity to buy your book if they hear about it weeks before your release date.

In my next column, I'll cover what happened when I launched my book on Amazon and began experimenting with its various sales tools. Suffice to say, some things didn't work out as I expected... but some things really did translate into additional sales.