Reflections on self-publishing from Margaret River

I spent last weekend in Margaret River, a small town south of Perth in Western Australia, at an informal reunion meeting for doctors from Oxford UK who now live in the Antipodes. Besides visiting some local vineyards, beaches, and limestone caves, most of us gave short talks to the group. Mine was on a non-medical topic – a basic overview of self-publishing. The content was not specific to doctors, but relevant to aspiring “indie authors” from any profession, so I’ll summarise it here.

First a brief personal background. Back in the 80s and 90s it was easy enough to find a traditional publisher for books about my medical specialty. I wrote or edited eight titles for academic publishers in the UK, and was sometimes even invited to produce new ones. It therefore came as a humiliating shock when my first novel was met with a series of rejection letters – some polite and encouraging but others not. After a particularly painful rebuff I gave up for many years. Then, when the self-publishing movement came on stream, I retrieved my faded typewritten manuscripts from the boxes where they had languished for so long and started revising them, as well as writing new ones. I have now become an indie author with eight titles to date, published as print-on-demand (POD) versions with Amazon CreateSpace, and as e-books on Smashwords and Amazon Kindle.

While so-called “vanity publishing” used to be expensive and stigmatized, now in the digital age self-publishing has become acceptable and affordable. So much so that everyone seems to be doing it – thousands of new books are self-published every day. A few, most famously Fifty Shades of Grey, are highly successful but most sell only a few copies. Those who embark on indie authorship in the hope of financial profit are therefore likely to be disappointed but there are many other rewards, as well as some potential pitfalls.

Besides writing the best possible content, indie authors have to deal with all the other aspects of the publishing process, although rather than do everything yourself you can employ some of the many freelance experts who can be found online. Editing and copy-editing are essential and I would strongly recommend that besides carefully checking the text yourself you ask several other people, whether professionals or honest friends, to point out the typos and mistakes in continuity that are almost always present. Formatting the text properly requires some technical expertise, and while some self-publishing platforms will accept whatever is submitted to them, others have strict formatting requirements. Uploading the completed text from a PC or Mac to your chosen online platform(s) is usually easy to do.

The following points are relevant for marketing purposes. Cover design is important because a split-second glance at the thumbnail image is often the basis on which potential readers will decide whether or not to “look inside” the book. Writing an enticing blurb, and choosing the most suitable categories and key words, will also help to attract readers. As regards pricing, the option of offering your e-books free of charge is undoubtedly the best way to obtain plenty of downloads but, unless your motive is to inform and uplift your readers rather than make a profit, giving away any more than a 20% sample would seem to devalue all the work which goes into their creation.

Self-publishing has both pros and cons when contrasted with the traditional route. Indie authors are assured of publication and have the freedom to control most aspects of the process. They have the flexibility to write books of almost any length, in any category or cross-genre. Publication can be complete in a few days or even a few hours. POD books and e-books need never go out of print or be remaindered. But the process is perhaps too easy, and the downside is that lack of independent quality control has led to a glut of mediocre books, meaning that many of the good ones are overlooked, and downgrading the status of indie authorship.

Many indie authors would say that having to handle their own marketing is the hardest and least enjoyable part of their work. They prefer to spend their time and energy on actual writing; feel diffident about promoting themselves; and be unsure how to go about it. But it has to be done and there are numerous methods available, for example:

Family and friends: tell your personal contacts about your book, and invite them to pass the information to their own circles. Some will be supportive, but others will not be interested to read it, or may not like it if they do.

Email signature: add a link to the book’s website to your personal email signature.

Social media: such as Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin.

Newsletter: hosted by a service such as Mailchimp.

Blog: the content does not have to relate directly to the book – someone who recently read my blog about cats emailed to tell me that she went on to buy a few of my medical titles.

Reviews: send free copies to selected book bloggers and media, but be aware they are overwhelmed with requests and may not respond.

Author pages: set up a profile on Amazon and other platforms.

Printed fliers or bookmarks: to give away at events, or through local libraries or cafes.

Presentations to groups

Online forums: discussion groups, such as those on Linkedin, relating to writing and/or to the subject-matter of your book.

Paid adverts and publicity campaigns: though expensive, these are not always effective.

Luck undoubtedly plays a part in determining which of the books in this supersaturated market will succeed in terms of sales. But even if you do not sell many copies it is satisfying to have your finished product “out there” and to have learned some new skills along the way.

This was quite a long post, but has only provided a highly condensed overview of the self-publishing process. More detail of my own take on how to enjoy being an indie author can be found in my short e-book Wellbeing for Writers.

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Wellbeing for Writers

I’m pleased to announce that my little ebook Wellbeing for Writers is now available from Amazon Kindle, Smashwords and other online sites.

Born out of my long experience as a part-time author alongside former careers in psychological medicine, life coaching and Bach flower therapy, this is a guide about how to maximise the satisfactions and minimise the frustrations which often arise while writing, publishing and marketing a book. Topics include structuring the process, finding inspiration, maintaining physical and mental health, coping with criticism, aligning personal values with writing, and more.

While mainly focused on the psychology of authorship, it also includes plenty of tips about the basic practicalities.

Most of the content is available for free on this blog … but for a nominal cost you can read it combined in one volume, rearranged in a logical order, and revised and updated throughout.

Please have a look on Amazon or Smashwords, and forward this to any of the aspiring authors among your circle of contacts.

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Quality vs Quantity

Indie authors are often advised to “keep adding new content” by publishing three or four new titles per year, as well as writing frequent posts on their blogs and social networking sites among other marketing activities. There may be a commercial justification for this – “the more books you have published, the more you are likely to sell” – but is it in the best interests of the profession in the long term?

Few writers can really have enough talent, or time, to generate such a large output without compromising the standard of their work. The market is already flooded with self-published books, many of which are poorly written and edited and contain recycled material. As a result some of the more excellent and original ones, which deserve to be widely read and have the potential to become classics, are easily overlooked.

It’s wonderful to see so many opportunities for today’s indie authors to get their work “out there”, but the process is so easy and affordable that it is tempting to use it too casually. “Keep on writing” is certainly sound advice for those wanting to develop their skills, but “keep on publishing” may not be.

Having said all this, I admit that I published three books of my own in 2014 and have another coming out soon. However, they had been many years in gestation, and I won’t be continuing with this rate of production.