Please Help Disabled Author GB Banks Start a Zombie Revolution

Hi folks:

Please take a minute to visit the following Indiegogo campaign for author GB Banks. He’s trying to fund the launch of his new novel, Revolution Z, and he has 8 days left to reach the modest $5000 goal. I discovered GB on Kboards and he always has some great, positive advice to give beginning writers so please – check out his campaign, and if you can, consider giving a donation. He’s a fantastic guy and I want to do my part to help him get his book off the ground.

http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/help-a-disabled-author-start-the-zombie-revolution

– Elle Chambers

Before You Self Publish….

Research the indie market. Go on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords. Study the covers of the books in the genre you write in and take notes on font use, kerning, color, imagery, aspect ratio, and titles. Ask yourself the following questions: Is the cover well designed or does it look DIY? If it does look less the professional, what changes could be made to make it better? Does this cover make me want to read the blurb or sample pages? Why or why not? If you read the blurb, does the cover adequately convey what the book is about? Then do the same thing with the blurb. Read it and then ask yourself: Is the blurb compelling? Do I want to read more? Do I care about the story being presented? Why or why not? Also, take a look at the prices of these books so you can get a feel for what other indies are charging for similar products. You don’t want to lowball yourself, but you also don’t want to set the price so high that no one will buy it, either.

Once you’re done researching the indie market, research the traditional market. Go back to the aforementioned distributor’s websites and study the covers, blurbs, and prices of traditionally published books in your genre. Ask yourself: Can my cover sit next to these covers on a virtual bookshelf and be virtually unrecognizable as a self-published novel? Is my blurb as enticing as the ones written by a professional sales team or could it use some work? Is my price too high or can it be lowered and still compete with other reasonably priced ebooks?

You don’t have to know all of these things ahead of time, but it will save you some time in the long run if you’re aware of what’s out there and what the public is buying. Pay attention to keywords and metadata while you’re at it (this is something I’m still working on myself and trying to get right – maybe with the next book?).

Make a business plan. We’d all like to be overnight success stories, but for many of us, that won’t happen. So think about where you want to be in five to ten years and plan for that. Make a budget for each book and/or short story that you plan to publish and try to stick to that budget if you can. Then figure out what you would like to be making per hour as a writer (this will be different for everyone) and calculate how many books/short stories/nonfiction articles/whatever you need to write and sell to make that money. Figure out how much money you’ll spend each year (and again, this will vary depending on each individual’s production schedule) and how long you have to write to break even, and then turn a profit.

I also can’t stress enough: plan for emergencies. My planned production schedule for 2013 was cut down from three complete novels and some short stories to one novel  and short stories because I wound up getting slammed with medical bills for a then undiagnosed stomach issue (I’ve since discovered I have celiac disease and a lactose intolerance) – I couldn’t afford to buy three covers, pay for editing, etc. Things happen sometimes and you have to have a backup plan (and a cash cushion) for when they do. You don’t want to derail your momentum.

Build a readership. A blog isn’t enough. From my own experience, I can tell you that 90% of the people who read this site aren’t average readers – they’re writers. And while I appreciate the eyeballs, other writers aren’t likely to buy (and read) my book. Same thing with Twitter. Most of the people who follow the @indie_spirit account are writers. 99% of my daily feed are tweets from those writers hawking their own novels. How likely is it that any of those people are going to see similar tweets from me about my book or Elle’s micro fiction collections (she has another one due out at the end of the month) and go purchase them?

Not very. Writers need to go where the actual readers are. There are many places online that people can post their complete stories or works in progress like FictionPress or Wattpad. There are online magazines and anthologies looking for everything from flash fiction to serials. If you prefer to venture outside of the interwebs for an audience (or if you want to do it in conjunction with online writing), there are many reputable short story markets you can send your work to. Wait times vary as does pay – some publications pay up to $700 for an accepted piece, others don’t pay at all or they only pay in contributors copies, but writers license their work with these pubs anyway for the increased visibility. Whatever avenue best meshes with your long-term plans is the one you should take.

Blogs aren’t completely useless either. They can reach readers if the writer in question does more than self-promote 24/7. Releasing free fiction on your site is a good way to get a following started, posting excerpts from published novels, maybe even doing an exclusive serialization will make your blog an attractive destination for non-writing readers. Experiment – see what works best for you. The more eyes you can get on your work prior to self-pubbing your own books, the better your novels will do sales wise. Do you need to have ten thousand Twitter followers to get on a bestseller list or have decent sales? Not really, but it doesn’t hurt. People are creatures of habit and comfort – we tend to seek out things that are familiar to us. If we already know an author and like her work because said author posts free stories on her blog every week, we’re more likely to read something else she puts out later on and may even pay for it!

Finally, read more. And more importantly, read books in the genre you plan to write in. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come across writers who’ve said they either don’t read at all or they don’t read in the genre they’re writing in. My mind boggles every time I hear that. How in the world can you expect to understand narrative structure if you don’t read? And if you’re writing genre fiction that relies on tropes to work, if you don’t read the genre, how will you know what they are and whether you’re doing anything new or interesting with them? You don’t have to read five hundred books a year to be a writer, but you do have to read something. The more you read, the more ingrained in your brain the storytelling process will become and that will ultimately make your writing cleaner, clearer, and easier.

*Please note that all points above are opinions based off my own (admittedly brief) experience as a self-published author. Feel free to ignore the points you don’t agree with. Publishing is not one size fits all and there are certain things that will work wonders for one writer and fail horribly with another. Use your best judgment when seeking advice or help of any kind.*

Question Corner: How to Become Your Own Publisher

Dear Indie Spirit Press: 

I’ve just finished my first novel after years of writing short fiction and I’m not sure whether I want to send the manuscript out to agents. In fact, I’ve been reading some blogs that have suggested self-publishing may be the way of the future and so I’m thinking of bypassing a traditional publisher altogether. Can you tell me how much it costs to become your own publisher and to produce your own books?

– Newbie Ned

First of all, congratulations on completing your first novel! That’s very exciting. No matter what you ultimately decide to do with it, celebrate the fact that you did something many people dream of doing and never manage to accomplish.

Now – this question is very complex because the truth is, it’s different for everyone. Some people can indie publish and spend little to no money and others have to, or choose to, spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars to get their work out to readers. We’re going to talk about the different steps of self-pubbing and the many ways you can try to make this cost effective if self-publishing is the avenue you choose to take with your manuscript.

1.       Find some good first readers to critique your manuscript. This is extremely important as you need to know before you put out any money to publish whether or not this manuscript is publishable. What we mean by that is, does the story work on a base level? If it doesn’t, you will need to find a way to rework the draft so it does. Readers will forgive spelling errors and grammatical slips if the story behind these mistakes is a good one. If the story is severely flawed or flat out nonsensical, readers will be less forgiving. You want to make the first best impression on readers you can so get some betas, preferably people who know your genre well, and find out where your story falls apart (if it does at all).

2.       Research distributors. Not all self-publishing outfits are created equal. Some are so expensive they might as well be vanity publishers, which is a means of distribution you want to avoid at all costs if you want to be taken seriously as an author and have a career. The biggest print distributor of self-published works at the moment appears to be Amazon’s CreateSpace. Lulu was pretty popular for a while, but we haven’t heard much from indie authors on them, good or bad, for quite some time.

Anyway, there are also outfits like BookBaby that state they will do everything from cover design to marketing for the self-published author so the author doesn’t have to. Personally, we don’t recommend these types of distributors because a lot of the things they charge authors for, like formatting, are things the author can learn to do himself if he takes the time to learn the functions of Microsoft Word.  Our philosophy is that the indie author should try to keep costs to a minimum, especially if the author intends to publish more than one book a year, and do as much as you can on your own. We don’t even recommend using CreateSpace’s design or marketing services, assuming you choose to go with them as a distributor, because most of their additional services are ridiculously overpriced.

However, CreateSpace is free for authors to use. Yes, that’s right – free. If all you want is your print novel in Amazon’s online catalog and your own separate e-store to sell books, all you have to do is upload your manuscript to CreateSpace, fix any formatting errors their system may find, proof your final document and press publish. You will now have standard distribution of your work through Amazon for free. If you would like to see your print book in other online retail stores such as Barnes & Noble, Powell’s, or The Book Depository, CreateSpace charges you a fee of $25 per title. Cheap, right? It’s a pretty good deal if you ask us.

If you are asked to spend more than this for trade paperback books from a self-publishing unit, we would strongly advise you to reconsider. You are the author – money should be flowing to you, not away from you. And run (don’t walk) away from any company claiming to help you self-publish and distribute your books in exchange for rights to your work. Self-publishing means all rights remain with you the author, NOT the distributor.

3.       Hire help. Now, if you decide to self-publish but you know that you don’t have the time to edit, format, design, and do layout all on your own, you can always farm out this work to a professional. But like we said above – you want to do this in the most cost effective way possible. Most first novels will not earn back the money spent on them right away so never put out more money than you’re willing to lose. With that said, there are some very talented freelance editors, designers, formatters, and public relations gurus out there looking for work.

Take the time to make a budget of how much you want to spend producing your novel, then get online and check out other indie published books. When you see covers you really like, check the credits or the front matter of the book to see if a designer/illustrator is listed. If so, Google that person and try to find an online portfolio of their work (many graphic designers will have this available on their own sites). Make a list of your top designers, then ask the authors they’ve worked with for references. You want to know how fast this person is, how much they cost, how willing they are to listen to ideas and how well they take direction, how many cover choices will you get to choose from, what their refund policies are, etc.  Then once you’ve figured that out, do the same thing for editors, formatters, etc.  

If you can do any of these things listed above yourself, do it. We know there are writers out there who are also graphic designers by trade or work as editors or copy writers. Think about what you can reasonably accomplish on your own given your time constraints and then make sure your skills are at a professional level before you proceed. You want your final product to be able to stand next to traditionally published novels.  If you’ve only been playing around with Photoshop for a week, you may want to have someone else step in and help you with your cover design.

Good freelance designers can be found online for as little as $20 or $40 and if you write YA, chick lit, or mysteries, we highly recommend you contact designer Allison Marie for help. She charges $60/hour for cover design, works fast (she finished the Preppy Little Liars cover in a few hours), and also designs other author must haves like Web site graphics, bookmarks, and business cards.

As far as editing goes, we’ve said it before and will say it again: if an editorial service is asking you to pay two cents a word or more for basic line editing, run in the opposite direction. Unless the editor in question has edited multiple New York Times bestsellers and has worked with traditional publishing companies, they have no business charging those prices to independent authors for their services. Do the math: if you have a 60,000 word manuscript and you’re being charged two cents per word, you’re looking at over a thousand dollars for one book. Now, if you have a substantial savings account, a rich spouse, or a trust fund, that price might not seem so outrageous to you.

But if you don’t have those things and your budget per project is modest, we suggest you get creative about having your manuscript edited. For example, if your local newspaper or magazine has a copy editor and proofreader (or someone who does both), why not reach out to the editor and ask if he wouldn’t mind looking over your work for a small fee? Then offer to pay him a reasonable wage that is within your budget. The worst that can happen is he says no. If that happens, there are free critique sites like Critique Circle where you can put your novel up, chapter by chapter, and get edits from fellow writers. And if you’re willing to pay a small fee, Critique Circle will allow you to have your own private reading queue where you can invite a select group of people to read your WIP without the general CC audience being able to see it.

As you can see, Newbie, there are many things you have to consider if you decide to go the self-publishing route (and this post didn’t even cover half of it!). But if you’re smart, and willing to put in some legwork, self-publishing your novel doesn’t have to be expensive. Amber Turner’s first novel Preppy Little Liars only cost $210 to produce – that is $150 for the cover, $25 for CreateSpace’s expanded distribution, and $35 for her copyright. We spent a whopping zero dollars producing Dark Tales: eVolume One by Elle Chambers. Her cover was designed by a writer/artist friend in exchange for future editing services and a photo credit.

If you want to learn more about self-publishing, we recommend you check out Dean Wesley Smith’s site for more in-depth information. Happy reading and good luck!

Writers and Validation

I’m involved in a fairly active writing community online and I keep seeing writers saying the same things over and over again:

I want to get published by a traditional publishing company and self-publishing is a last resort.

I will never self-publish and if I write twenty novels and none of them find a home at a Big Five publishing company, I still won’t self-publish.

I won’t publish with a small press because I might not get an advance and they can’t market my work.

Now, every writer is different. Some writers are not cut out for self-publishing. They just aren’t. Self-publishing is a business (actually, all publishing is a business, but many writers don’t see it that way and that’s another post for another day) and some writers don’t want to be business owners. Essentially, if you go the indie route and do-it-yourself, you are effectively a small business. There are writers who don’t want to deal with everything that that entails and that’s their choice – the purpose of this post isn’t to persuade anyone to this side of the business, but to ask why this is.

Why do writers cling to the traditional publishing model despite the steep odds of breaking in? Why are so many writers closed off to other avenues of getting their work into the hands of readers? I mean, presumably if you’re trying to be a career writer and not just a hobbyist, you’re writing with the intention of getting an audience. So why limit your ability to do so by sticking to one way of publishing?

I started thinking about this, thinking about why I used to want to be traditionally published, and it came back around to validation. I wanted to be able to say, “Big Time Publisher X just gave me a three book deal. That must mean I’m a good writer.”

Well, no, not exactly.

Publishing is a business after all so that means the bottom line of a given company is first and foremost the concern of the people running it. That means that if they come across a writer who is only so-so when it comes to the actual mechanics of writing, but is writing on a subject that’s currently hot in the book market and can make them a lot of money, they’ll publish that writer, shitty prose and all.

You can write the most beautiful sentences in the world, but if your story isn’t considered salable by the marketing department of Big Time Publisher X, you’re not going to get a contract for your book. At least not from that particular publisher.

Now, I’m not saying my teenage rationale for wanting a traditional publishing contract is the rationale for all aspiring writers who go the legacy route. I’ve had many writer friends say to me, “I want a traditional book contract so I can get my work edited.” I don’t bother pointing out that more and more publishing houses are cutting editorial positions and outsourcing the work to freelance editors and I won’t get into that now – that’s for another post and another time.

Another one I get is, “I want a traditional publishing company to sign me so they can market my novel since I’m not good at self-promotion.” I have on occasion pointed out to the writers who say this that even if they score a contract from a New York publishing house, they’ll still be doing the majority of their book marketing themselves (especially as a newbie), but that always falls on deaf ears so I’ve stopped saying it. Let them believe that all they have to do is write the book, turn it in, and sit back and collect the royalty checks – not my career, not my business. They’ll learn soon enough how much self-promotion traditionally published writers have to do just to be midlist. (Hint: it’s pretty much the same amount of work indie authors have to do to be midlist.)

These are legit concerns that aspiring writers have. They don’t seem driven by ego or crippling insecurity. But I’ve seen writers say stuff like this:

·         I want a traditional publishing contract because I need the validation that someone besides my family and friends thinks I’m talented

and it saddens me. I am a firm believer that the only validation a writer should need is the validation they get from readers. Readers are the ones who spend their hard earned money on your work – not agents, not publishers, and certainly not other writers – and, therefore, their opinions are the only ones that should matter.

Talent is subjective. There are even many people who don’t believe talent exists. (I am not one of those people, but that too belongs in another post.) But if readers are buying your books and enjoying them, and you’ll know they’re enjoying them if they leave glowing reviews on all the online retailer sites and Goodreads or they’re blogging about your book, then those people think you’re talented or entertaining or something and that should be enough.

Again – if you’re a hobbyist writer, then this probably doesn’t matter to you, but if you’re trying to do this as a career, you have to get past the notion that only a legacy publisher can tell you if you’re good. Readers are the new gatekeepers in this digital age and they’ll let you know if something you’ve written is good or not by either buying it or ignoring it. (And yes, sometimes good books get ignored due to obscurity or bad covers or crazy pricing and quality of the project has little to do with it. I know.)

This publishing dilemma reminds me of a situation I found myself in after college. I couldn’t get a job at any newspaper in the country and I couldn’t pay magazines to run one of my freelance articles. I felt like a complete failure, not to mention angry at the amount of money I spent on a useless degree. So I applied to grad school for creative writing and when I was accepted into Sarah Lawrence’s Graduate Writing Program for Creative Non-fiction, I was thrilled. Somebody thought I could write! I wasn’t a hack after all – I was good.

Well, again, not exactly.

See, I believed this to be true when I deferred my acceptance so I could try and get enough money in scholarships and grants to attend and the school held my spot without question when I explained to them, nicely, that their financial aid package for graduates wasn’t going to “aid” me in doing anything other than accumulating more debt than I already had from my undergrad studies. I thought, “Gee, these people must really believe I’m a good writer if they’re willing to wait for me. They must really want me in this program.” I kept thinking it when I asked for a second deferment and was given it with no fuss. But if they’d really wanted me in the program because I was good, wouldn’t they have tried to adjust my financial aid package so I could afford to attend the school without going bankrupt in the process?

They wanted my money. That’s all. It had nothing to do with whether or not I was “good.” But I bought into that idea because I was naive about how MFA programs, and university admissions in general, actually work.

That same lack of understanding of the business side of publishing is what I believe makes people say the things I’ve mentioned above. These writers are operating under the assumption that the business still works the same way it did a decade or more ago – it doesn’t. And sure, you can tell writers to research the industry for themselves before committing to any particular path, but the problem with this is that every writer’s experience in the business is different so for writers who need clear, step-by-step instructions on how to go about doing this professionally, they won’t get it. The path to publication is not one size fits all. For every former traditionally published writer who now publishes his own work via Amazon and swears he will never go back to a New York house because of how horribly he was treated, there’s a former traditionally-pubbed author self-pubbing who’d gladly go back to a traditional contract if offered one.

Is it for validation’s sake? Advance money? It’s certainly not for rights and royalties because when you self-publish, you keep all of your rights and you get a higher royalty rate than if you were to go through a publisher.

I don’t know. All I know is that my first book just recently received its first review on Smashwords after months of radio silence and it was lovely. The review made me smile because the reader loved the characters, loved the setting, and said if there’s a sequel, he (she? The name was gender neutral) will most likely be getting it – and “most likely” is way better than a “probably.” It’s practically a “yes.” That’s the reaction I was hoping for and I now have at least one confirmed reader for the next book in the series.

Seriously – besides making a boatload of money, what other validation could be better than that?