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.*

Halloween and Dark Tales: What Inspires You?

And All Through The HouseHere we are in October, my favorite month of the year. Soon the leaves will be turning that crisp brown, gold, and/or burnt orange color and will be falling off the trees into large, inviting piles just waiting for some giddy child (or a silly adult such as myself) to jump on in ‘em.

But the best part of October is Halloween. The costumes, the candy, the haunted houses and hayrides – I love it all. Even better, most stations this month will be running horror movie marathons leading up to the 31st so there will never be a shortage of things to watch to send a subtle chill up your spine and keep you up at night.

I’m working on my next micro collection of dark tales for release around Halloween and while brainstorming ideas, I realized something I hadn’t thought about before: most of my stories are inspired by film or television, not by the horror fiction I grew up reading.

As my bio stated, I lived for Stephen King novels as a kid. I remember being six-years-old going to the library every weekend with my mom and brother, heading straight back to the horror section and bypassing all the children’s and middle grade literature. I’d read the back cover copy on his older books in the section, read the jacket flaps, and if the cover was frightening or strange, I’d put it in my “to read” pile.

Once I had an armload of books, I’d head on over to the librarian at the circulation desk and plop my bounty up on the counter, sliding her (because it was always a female working the desk) my library card. She’d look at me, then up at my mother, then back down to the titles I’d laid out for her, then back at mom.  Mom would just shrug and say, “She likes scary stories.”  The librarian would sigh, shake her head, and check out the age-inappropriate material, handing the books to me with a concerned and bewildered expression on her face. I’d smile, thank the judgey librarian, and happily jog out to my mother’s car, cracking open one of the tomes to read on the short ride home.

Movies, however, seem to have had a greater impact on me and my sensibilities as a writer mainly because they operate on a visual level. I’m a visual person. Images I see get burned into my mind and never leave (seriously – I have almost perfect recall of things I’ve seen, and been horrified by, as a child) and while I’m writing, these images come to the forefront of my mind and inform the tone of whatever it is I’m working on.

For example, in Dark Tales: eVolume One there’s a story called “Child’s Play” about a young boy and his imaginary friend who might not be quite so imaginary. After I wrote it, I came upon Thomas Ligotti’s short story “The Frolic” and was surprised by how similar my ending of “Child’s Play” was to his – but not very. Because ultimately, my ending was a take off a Tales from the Crypt episode I’d seen as a kid called “And All Through the House” (and I hadn’t consciously intended to do that when I sat down to write the story by the way).  I won’t spoil the endings of any of the three stories mentioned here, but needless to say, I think Ligotti and I must have been inspired by the same story (remember – Tales  was a popular comic book series in the ‘50s and ‘60s and “And All Through the House” was taken from the source material). The image of a deranged serial killer standing in your house dressed as Santa, drenched in blood is a powerful (and chilling) one. As is a woman screaming. These images are perfect jumping off points for a horror story.1_TCSOTL

I don’t have any hard proof Ligotti ever read the comic (and his short story was written before “And All Through the House” was filmed for the Tales HBO series) but it wouldn’t surprise me if he had seen the comics as a boy and had been partially inspired to write dark fiction because of it. Since I know now that I create based off things I’ve seen, TV shows and films that have stuck with me, I wonder – does anyone else do this? And I’m not talking about writing fanfic; that’s a whole other issue.  What I mean is, does anyone else unintentionally write a story and then go back, read a book or watch a movie and think, Gee, I think I might have cribbed that totally awesome idea I had earlier from here? I’d love to hear from writers of any genre on this, but especially horror/dark fiction writers since the genre we write in oftentimes tends to be a bit more graphic and atmospheric than others.

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?