Yesterday I posted a list of questions that authors should ask themselves before deciding to self-publish. Mr. Jeff Duntemann, one of my sources for that post, left a salient comment that nicely segues into the topic at hand. Here's Jeff.
You have to be willing to put some of your own money into the process. Most people need the services of an editor, and editors cost money. Good covers matter, and if you're not an artist yourself, cover art costs money. Creating an ebook from your manuscript isn't objectively difficult, but there's some skill and research (and practice!) involved, unless you're willing to pay somebody else to do it.Whereas yesterday's post featured questions that an author could answer in the negative and still self-publish successfully (albeit with greater difficulty), Today we'll be covering the aspects of this business that Jeff emphasized, and which I call non-negotiables of indie publishing.
I. You Need an Editor
I've mentioned this before, and it bears repeating until all authors get it through our introverted skulls. If you plan to release a book for public consumption, you need an editor.
Your own knowledge of spelling, grammar, and story structure is irrelevant. All writers, however good they are at editing other people's work, suffer from the inescapable handicap of projecting their internal idea of how the manuscript should look onto the page.
Don't believe me? Then you probably haven't shown an early draft of your work to a competent editor before. Try it, and I promise that punctuation, words, and even whole sentences that you could've sworn were there aren't in the text. Descriptions that seemed vivid to you will be clear as mud to others.
My favorite explanation of the writer/editor relationship comes from Brandon Sanderson. He likened it to the relationship between a racing driver and a pro mechanic. The driver takes the car out for a test lap and notices that something's wrong. There's a strange vibration when he takes it past 120. The brakes feel a little soft. There's some understeer in the corners.
The driver knows that something's wrong. He might even know what's wrong. But the mechanic is paid to know exactly what's wrong, why it went wrong, and how to fix it.
Not even tried and true beta readers can substitute for a pro editor. Readers know when something's not working, but without specialized training and experience, they're usually wrong as to why. A good editor will spot what doesn't work, know why it doesn't work, and can tell you how to make it work.
Though the stigma of indie authorship is fading, there are still some readers who won't even consider buying a self-published book. One of the main reasons that customers are gun-shy about indie books is that a significant number of self-pubbed authors are still offering sloppy, typo-riddled books for sale.
Yes, the gatekeepers are gone. That doesn't mean anything goes. It means that we, as our own publishers, bear the responsibility for bringing the best product to market that we can.
Tl;dr: don't foist your unedited MS on the public. If I can afford an editor, so can you. If you don't have time to find an editor, I can make the time to come to your house and dissolve your laptop in acetone.
Seriously, you're like the guy who hides razor blades in Halloween candy so the rest of us have to use metal detectors before we eat our Milky Ways. Don't be that guy.
II. You Need Good Cover Art
Some say that people really do judge books by their covers. I prefer to flip that statement around and say that a cover should make a potential reader judge the book worthy of closer inspection.
A good cover entices the viewer into reading the back jacket copy. The description on the back should entice the reader into checking out the book's first paragraph. A good first paragraph closes the sale.
Like sloppy editing, poor covers are another self-pubbed author tell. This state of affairs is just dumb, since there's no excuse for having an amateurish cover. In fact, cover design is one area where trad publishers have given indie authors an opening to beat them at their own game.
Trad publishing is rife with examples of questionable cover design. Whether they're chasing trends or pinching pennies with cheap stock images, trad publishers don't exactly have sterling reputations where covers are concerned.
|Is that title French for "No Loitering"?|
Here's Barry's preferred cover for the same book.
Legacy publishers have put their marketing departments (and increasingly, their accounting departments) in charge of artistic decisions. It shows, and gives indie authors a big chance to position ourselves at the head of the pack.
A less egregious, but more common, trend is trad publishers' apparent allergy to genre novel covers that actually convey genre.
|Cover up the title, and tell me this book isn't about birds.|
A refreshing example of a major publishing house getting a cover pitch perfect comes, as usual, from Baen. Check this out:
Larry Elmore makes the book a no questions asked, on-sight purchase for a veritable army of nerds.
Speaking of which, you can buy it right now for Kindle.
Go. Right now. I'l wait.
So that cover earned Baen House a cool 100 points.
Then their marketing guys insisted that they slap this image on the hardcover.
|Pictured: Black,; lots of it.|
Not pictured: sons, swords.
Make no mistake. Larry--neither of them--had a hand in this decision. When you write for a major publisher, you need to keep them happy, and that means not being a prima donna. You are paying them a considerable portion of your book's proceeds to make marketing decisions for you, so there's not much room to complain if you disagree with those decisions. As always, Larry is being a pro and throwing himself wholeheartedly into the book launch campaign.
In contrast, Indie authors answer only to their readers. This is a double-edged sword. As your own art director, you must take sole responsibility for the success or failure of your book's cover. Luckily, the internet makes finding quality artists who'll work for reasonable commissions easy.
Deviant Art has a group for book cover design. It comes highly recommended. I found my cover artist there.
Which brings me to...
I'll let Amazon reviewer Russell S. Newquist explain this cover's relevance.
I'm going to come right out and admit it: I bought this book because of its cover. First, that cover is all kinds of awesome. Second, it's a cover that screams out, "I am a science fiction novel and I'm not afraid to announce that to the world."
I'm not a fan of the recent trend in genre fiction towards bland, generic covers that try to hide the fact that the books are genre. I bought Game of Thrones back nearly twenty years ago when it was still printed with the original paperback cover of Jon Snow and his direwolf Ghost. I'm not afraid to admit that I bought that book for the cover, too.
|If this book IS about cats, we've got an open and shut false advertising case.|
Russell's not the only one. I've lost count of the compliments people have paid to Marcelo's cover for Nethereal--and how many said they'd bought the book solely because of it. You can become one of them!
*End sales pitch.*
Honestly, my own book's cover is the best example I have ready at hand of how a self-published novel can meet or exceed legacy publishing design standards. I'm extremely lucky to have found an amazing artist whose vision aligns with my own. And with some diligent searching, you can get lucky, too.
For those wondering about price, I'm not comfortable discussing hard numbers without Marcelo's consent, but suffice it to say that I paid less for art than for editing. And Nethereal earned enough to pay off both in a matter of weeks.
That's the beauty of Deviant Art. It's full of top shelf artists who share your problem of getting noticed. So go notice them.
This should be self-evident, but a lot of indie authors apparently didn't read the memo. Let me get you another copy.
Do not upload a document fresh from your word processing software to online retailers like KDP, Smashwords, etc. The likelihood of unsightly formatting errors is extremely high.
Either take the time to learn eBook formatting yourself, or if your personal techno-disruption field is as strong as mine, hire someone competent to do it for you.
I use Polgarus Stuido. Their service has a nice personalized touch, and their prices are both rational and reasonable.
To recap: your book must be professionally edited. Your book must have a professionally designed cover that conveys story, mood, and genre. Your book must be properly formatted.
If every indie author would take these three simple steps, the self-publishing stigma would quickly disappear. Yes, following these steps requires a time/money investment. But to quote Jeff again, "...if you don't believe in yourself, well, who will?"