Image credit @Kiwihug via Unsplash
I published my debut collection of short fiction in March of this year — “Dark Winds Over Wellington: Chilling Tales of the Weird & the Strange.” The title itself, while a bit of a mouthful, is a nod to both some of the overly long titles used in the 18th century, and to the Penny Dreadfuls from the early 19th century. At that time, book promotion was rather different to today’s methods. Authors would seek to hook in their readers with an explanatory and tantalising title, giving a little taste of what was to come.
Book promotion may well be different now, but it does still present many challenges, especially to those who choose to self-publish. Most indie authors rely on repetitively spamming friends and family with links to their books, in the hope that eventually someone will buy it. Reviews from other readers and writers on Twitter and targeted blogs also help a great deal. Getting your book bought and read can often seem harder than writing it in the first place.
I decided to self-publish independently for a few reasons, and avoiding the so-called Gatekeepers wasn’t one of them. In all honesty, I wrote a book as an experiment. I simply wanted to see if I could. I’ve written three non-fiction books for an academic publisher, but I’d never published fiction. I hadn’t even entered a fiction competition until September last year. I like a challenge, and I love writing, so it seemed like a winning combination.
The industry has changed so much in the past fifteen years; pretty much anyone can write and self-publish a book. Which is wonderful, and yet, pretty much anyone can write and self-publish a book. There is a definite over-saturation of certain markets occurring, and I’m quite interested to see where it is all going. On the one hand it makes it so much easier to share your voice and present your art, but on the other, it can make it harder to filter out some of the exceptional stuff from the mediocre. Although it irks me to even say such a thing, as knowing now what I do about the trials and tribulations of self-publishing, I have the absolute utmost respect for anyone who even considers it.
Self-publishing is, first and foremost, a labour of love. It requires many skills, or at least the willingness to learn them. It can be done with absolutely zero financial cost, or you can ‘pay-to-play’ as you wish. But one thing it most certainly is not, is easy.
You will build the house. You will decorate the house. You will furnish it and landscape the garden. You will deal with the real estate people and any queries and concerns from the council. Essentially, you will do everything there is to do, and it will take away a lot of your precious writing and creating time. At the end of the day, your house still might not be up to code. Without great foundations, any structure will inevitably crumble.
It’s not enough to simply write a good story. If you self-publish, it must also look good. It must be formatted correctly and copy-edited thoroughly. Any teeny, tiny typos you may have missed can be collected by your readers, and fashioned into your hangman’s noose. How ironic it is that some people will be far more likely to comment on your mistakes than congratulate you on your achievements. I can almost guarantee that you will get far more hung up on one bad review than a hundred good ones. And so it goes.
Imposter Syndrome gets talked about a lot in creative circles, and it is a real, and often very crippling, affliction. Every writer worth their salt, even the ‘big names’, experience a visit from this particular gremlin sometimes. That terrible nausea felt when someone new reads your work. “Please read this. Please don’t read this!” The thoughts that tumble around your head will fight and contradict. Personally, I get a ridiculous amount of anxiety every time I think about how a complete stranger can now read my work and react to it in a way I have no control over. That’s okay in some ways — I know that I can only control what’s on the page, not how people respond to it — but in others, I want to be there with them, explaining some of the finer plot points and putting things into context.
When you self-publish you do avoid the Gatekeepers, as the publishing industry gets called. You have complete control over what you do, but it is absolutely imperative that you find a good, critical peer group who will be brutally honest as well as constructive. Friends and family will likely tell you your work is wonderful regardless, for fear of upsetting you. They might not have the necessary skills or experience to pick up any spelling or grammatical mistakes. Some of them will take your manuscript with a sincere promise to read and review, but never actually make the time.
I think you have to be a particular flavour of confident to self-publish without any outside help at all. I definitely couldn’t have done it. I was extremely lucky to find a bunch of people who offered up their time and experience willingly and without complaint. I have thanked them via my book’s Acknowledgments page, but I know that in a lot of ways I cannot ever thank them enough.
If there is one particular thing I have learned through my endeavour, is different kinds of word processing software hate one another. Formatting is a pain in the ass. You are much better to write in plain text in a notepad app and deal with any formatting issues after the fact, than you are to try utilising built-in templates. Never, ever, no matter how tempting it may seem, use tab stops to indent paragraphs. It will cause you to invent and express so many swear words, it would make Dennis Leary blush. Tab stop indented paragraphs are the Devil. Don’t do it. Set indents using the aptly named ‘indents’ setting, and walk away.
When it comes to exporting as an electronic publication, your software will also likely throw you a few curve balls. An ePub may display beautifully on Kindle or Apple Books, but look like a pile of absolute mangled shit on OverDrive or TotalReader. Epubs should always be reflowable; it allows the reader to view them how they need to, and I believe it is important to recognise that publishing digitally grants you an obligation to consider accessibility functions.
When you create something which should be accessible to all, consider those with disabilities first. You can then make something for everyone to enjoy. Just like installing a ramp instead of stairs – no-one gets shut out. However, if you don’t get the formatting right, you can end up making the experience at best, suboptimal, at worst, completely impossible for those who rely on certain features.
Some self-published authors often give away their books for free, or for very minimal amounts. Their argument being more sales for less cash are better than fewer for more. Not me. The reason for that is not out of greed, or unwillingness to share, but because the Arts are far too frequently treated as if they have less worth than other professions. My time and my energy is worth my fee. As is any other writer’s. I admit, in the past, I have pirated books. I didn’t even think much about what I was doing. I cringe with shame now. How dare I think so little of a fellow author’s hard work? I’ve bought ebook versions of some of the books I stole. It’s a small token of apology, but I needed to atone.
NaNoWriMo — National Novel Writing Month — challenges people to write a 50,000 word book in 30 days. My collection clocks in at 58,000 words. If I were to estimate how much time I spent on this one, small book, I imagine it would be in the region of 800 hours, not counting any incidental edits, moments of sudden inspiration or read-throughs. That’s 800 hours in addition to my usual working day. There was a part of me, when I first started writing my collection, where I thought I wouldn’t mind giving it out for free. I just wanted people to read it. Now, after spending countless hours of my life writing, re-writing, editing and formatting, my time has value. Every writer and artist’s time is valuable. Just imagine if every author set a price on their work by billing readers by the hour!
Self-publishing was a rollercoaster of a journey, and not one I was completely prepared for. I’ve learned that I thoroughly enjoy writing, even more than I thought I did. I’ve also discovered I’m not too terrible at it, and I am forever improving. Despite any stresses I’ve encountered, even when a lot of the process sucked the joy out of doing it at all, I did what I set out to do — I wrote and published a book. Not for fame, nor riches. Not for public acclaim or to prove a point. But for me. So I could hold a little piece of art in my hands and say, “I made that, and I’m proud of it.”