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Ten Commandments of Independent Publishing Part One

I’m preparing for my panel at the  Writer’s Digest Annual Conference. The conference kicks off tomorrow, here in New York City. The title of the session is “Getting Real About Self Publishing.” I wanted to share what I have learned along the way, and to share some of the great resources that I use. They’ve made a big difference in how I approach publishing “The Writer’s Coloring Book.” So here is the first part in a multi-part post that I’m calling “The Ten Commandments of Independent Publishing.”

I saw this on the street in New York. Failure is not an option, even if you think your work is trash. Keep writing.
I saw this on the street in New York. Failure is not an option, even if you think your work is trash. Keep writing.

When I was at the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference I met Carew Papritz. He called himself an “independently” published author as opposed to being “self-published.” At first I thought that sounded gimmicky. But if you look at the word “self” it generates some words that are not exactly positive: selfish, self aggrandize, self obsessed.

But look at the word “independent” and the first word that pops into my head is “freedom.” That for me, that is why I chose to become an independent publisher: it gives me the freedom to do exactly what I want.  Of course there is a lot of hard work that goes into it, but you don’t have to play by the rules of any one else’s game, you can let your creativity rule.

But with great freedom comes great responsibility. So here are my “commandments” that I offer up guide you through this amazing new landscape.

Thou Shalt Not Publish Crap: Yes, that sounds like a no-brainer, but let’s look at reality for a minute. Sturgeon’s Law tells us that 90% of everything is crap. Why is that? Publishers, movie studios, and music studios are businesses. They can’t sit around and wait for fantastic, amazingly well written or well-produced movies to fill up their catalog. They have to ship the merch. So they are always looking for the best, but have to accept the mediocre to meet their quota. To put butts in seats and sell books, and hope that something turns into a big hit.

In the world of Independent publishing, all those writers who were being rejected by agents, who were tired and frustrated said “Aha, I can self publish.” And thus now the slush pile has been uploaded onto Amazon. No wonder they created Kindle Unlimited. They can’t even sort out what is good from what is dreck, so they decided to give that job to their customers.

You are in charge of your own little universe, the small business that is your writing career. Are you going to follow the model of putting out crap, publishing now while you try to get better and then write your “really good stuff,” or are you going to wait? You can guess my advice. Wait. Yes writing is hard work. It’s harder than you thought it was going to be — so much harder. And it is so very tempting to just put something out there now. But along with being a writer, you are also a small business owner. As such it is your responsibility to understand the worth of your “product” before you take it to market. You must develop the ability to check your work objectively. This requires a great deal of self-awareness, to be able to evaluate your own strengths and weaknesses as a writer. And to create some emotional distance between you and your book and test its market potential.

How do you know it’s ready to go to market? One way is to use traditional publishing’s system of querying agents. Jeff Kleinman wrote a great little book (okay, it’s his ideas and his summer intern did the work) called “The Science of Rejection Letters: A Step-By-Step Guide to analyze rejection letters, improve your writing and get published.

In his little book he advises you to do your research and come up with the top ten agents who could represent you and your work. Write your query letter – I know, some of you thought that by going independent, you could get away from the pain and suffering of writing a query letter. Actually it is the opposite. Go to Queryshark.com and read the archives to see how it is done. Because when it comes time to list your book blurb, all you need to do is use the copy you wrote for your query.

Send your queries out and see what kind of responses you get. If you are getting requests for pages, that is a good sign. If you are getting requests for full manuscripts, even better.

Another option: look at your favorite writers in your genre. Go back and find their debut novel—not their 23 or 24th book, their first. Buy three copies of it. Take one and re-read it again to see why you loved it. Read it a third time and take it apart. Make a master list of each chapter with a short summary to figure out the book’s structure. Highlight all the great sentences that jump out at you. Grab a notepad and make notes on how the author handles point-of-view, pacing, dialogue. Study the inner workings of the book.

Apply what you learned to your own work. Rewrite and revise until your work stands up to the standards set in your favorite author’s book. Now, take one of your other copies of the author’s book and your book. Find a reader— not a friend, maybe your friend’s cousin— or a librarian. Find someone who will be willing to read both books. And ask them one question: does my book live up to the published one?

Yes, this is hard, yes it takes time, yes it’s gut wrenching. Now you know why so many famous authors drank so heavily. But this is the job. This is what art demands. It demands your best effort.

I want you to be confident that your book is the best it can be. Because it is that confidence that will come through when you write your book blurb, when you talk to readers. When you feel confident, agents will pick up on that confidence too. Don’t just add to the 90% in the slush pile – put your product on the market when you’re proud of it.

Thou Shalt Assemble a Team of Professionals to Support You.

Another reason to ditch the “self publishing” moniker: you cannot publish effectively without help. No matter how gifted a writer you are, you are going to need an editor. Even if it is someone to tell you if your book is on the right track, and that it is good enough to fulfill commandment number 1. And you most certainly will need someone to do your copy editing and proofreading for you. It is just how our brain works. After you read something for the third or fourth time, your conscious mind says, “oh, we’ve seen this before, we’re not going to waste good brain cells on this again.” And you literally cannot see the typos.

Professional writers rely on their editors and as you are in the beginning of your career, it would behoove you to build a relationship with a good editor now. He or she may help you plan out a series, if that is your big plan, or give you advice on your next set of books. This is my chance to give a big shout out to editors that I work with:

Marcy Kennedy is a fantastic editor and a great resource for writers. She is so sweet, and a breeze to work with, and she’s a task master. She helped me with my book and is very much in demand because she is so good. She has also written several writing craft books in her series called “Busy Writer’s Guide Books.” I would also recommend that you check out Julie Glover,  another wonderful editor and writer. I have worked with both of these women and can vouch for their skills and professionalism.

 

You might also look into the Editorial Freelancers Association. It is a non-profit organization of freelance publishing professionals. You can search through their directories and find not only editors, but proofreaders, and translators. You can list a description of what you need (it’s free) and you will get responses from.

No matter how artistically gifted you are, or how well you understand graphic arts and design, you will still need a graphic artist to help you with your book cover design. We see book covers all the time, great ones and crappy ones. You need a graphic arts professional to explain to you what elements work and don’t work in a book cover. Please note, I said “graphic artist” — someone who has been trained to use visual elements to capture a viewer’s attention and to sell things.

We judge books by their covers, period. We judge people by what they wear, we judge everything by appearance all the time. Don’t be swayed by price — when you go about having a cover designed, don’t go cheap. This is an investment in putting the best face on your work. Even if you think you have a good sense of design, get help.

Do your research. Who are the top book cover designers? Look at their work. Look up Chip Kidd or Peter Mendlesund. Don’t freak out and think this kind of professional quality is too expensive. Study what they have done so when you look for a graphic artist you can show them what style you are trying to make with your cover. Go to the experts at Writer’s Digest magazine for information on what makes a good cover.

Go to ilovetypography.com and learn about fonts and font creators and what an effective sales tool the correct font can be on a book cover. Go to Behance.net and do a search for “book jackets” and look at the covers that these talented artists have created. Find graphic artists and illustrators, or find an upcoming graphic artist in your area. Support local talent, and build your brand and your network.

I have interviewed booksellers in New York and in other cities and when I ask them what they look for in a book cover, they always say the same things: I want to see the title and the author’s name. They don’t care so much about the rest. I know, you’ve seen great covers with groovy graphics, but remember, many people are going to see your cover as a thumbnail online — it will be squished down to a tiny version. You want people to be able to read your name and the title of your book.

You may have artist friends who offer to design your cover for you, but beware, your cover is a selling tool, not just something with cool art. Don’t let your cover sell your artist friend’s work and not your book.

This is my current writing space while I'm in New York. Even while traveling, I make sure to set aside creative writing time.
This is my current writing space while I’m in New York. Even while traveling, I make sure to set aside creative writing time.

Remember Your Writing time and keep it holy.

Now that I have already overwhelmed you with how much work it is going to take before you are ready to publish, and who you will need to help you, I add this very important third commandment. You are in this for the long haul. As soon as you start doing any online research into the topic of independent publishing you can get overwhelmed. Make sure you do the most important work first: Your writing.

I recommend you do your creative work first. It doesn’t matter what time of day you do it (I prefer the first thing in the morning before I look at my email or social media). Make sure you create something first, even if it is just revising an old scene or writing up a new one. This will boost your word count, and more importantly, your confidence. And that is what will get you through this maze. Knowing that you have a great book to bring to the marketplace. Knowing you have a “product” that you can stand behind and be proud of.

This is enough information to keep you busy. The next set of commandments will cover how to take part in social media effectively and growing your vast publishing empire. Did you find anything here helpful? Do you have other links to share with other independent writers? Please feel free to post them in the comments. I love hearing from you guys. Here’s to you, may all your writing and publishing dreams come true.