I am by no means the first to make noise
about self-publishing, which in the past decade has become more and more popular with authors for any number of reasons. Literally tens of millions of articles are plastered all over the Internet purporting to share the secrets of successful self-publishing. But the truth remains that the large majority of self-published titles rarely sell more than a couple hundred copies. In fact, Forbes noted in a recent article that, on average, self-published books sell about 250 copies apiece.
Those numbers are actually really horrible. No traditional publisher would even consider a book if sales expectations were so low.
Of course, sales alone aren’t always—and shouldn’t be—the only benchmark by which to judge the value of a book. Although publishers are always looking at—and have to look at—the bottom line, the reality is that quality is king. No one wants to—or should want to—publish a book that reeks of poor writing, that doesn’t do what it sets out to do, that is built on a flimsy foundation of colorless characters and plodding plotting.
Unfortunately, this is, in fact, where most self-published titles fail. Too many are just not all that well written. They’re not engaging. They’re littered with copy-editing and proofreading mistakes. They’re poorly designed. They’re wrapped in sophomoric covers and described with amateurish copy.
Bad books don’t sell. And that’s true whether a book is published by a traditional house, a vanity printer, or through a self-publishing outfit.
Of course, that’s not to say that all self-published titles are horrendous. Some self-published titles manage to break out and sell millions of copies (e.g., E. L. James’s 50 Shades of Grey series). Here at Chicago Book Review, our reviewers have said a few kind words about one or two self-published titles. But most self-published titles fail—both in terms of sales figures and quality.
The truth is that most of the self-published titles we receive at Chicago Book Review just don’t cut the mustard. We get so many of them that are so bad on so many levels that we recently announced a hiatus on accepting self-published titles for review (i.e., we are accepting no self-published titles until further notice).
We realize this will upset, anger, disappoint, irritate, etc., etc., many area self-published authors who already have been lamenting the fact that getting someone—anyone—to review their self-published title is next to impossible.
But the question these authors should be asking isn’t “Why won’t anyone review my self-published book?” What they should be asking instead is “What can I do to make my self-published book so attractive that reviewers can’t refuse it?”
Allow me to provide some answers to that important question.
1. Write a Good Book
Publishing isn’t easy. If everyone knew how to publish bestsellers, everyone would be publishing bestsellers. The fact is that of the hundreds of thousands of new titles issued every year, only a relative handful manages to hit the bestseller lists. By what magic do they manage to do this? They start with a good book. And that means a well-written, well-structured, well-developed manuscript. If fiction, it means an engaging story, tightly written, populated with memorable characters doing interesting things. If memoir, it means a compellingly told story of a transformative experience that is at once unique and universal. If nonfiction, it means a timely, practical, educational, and informative guide that prompts readers to do something, think in a new way, or change their behavior. No matter the genre or subject, a good book has to be timely. It has to be unique. It has to be well written. It has to be all these things—and more.
2. Get Your Manuscript Edited by a Professional
Your writing group may well provide you with some useful insight that can help you shape your manuscript while you’re writing it. Your sister the English major might be able to chime in with some comments that help identify holes in your story. But nothing beats having a professional editor read through your manuscript, word by word, line by line, page by page, with an objective eye trained for spotting what works and what doesn’t as well as all those pesky grammar, punctuation, and style issues. Yes, this will cost you some money. Yes, an editor may tell you something about your manuscript that you don’t necessarily want to hear. Yes, the edits, comments, questions, and feedback an editor provides may force you to rethink or rewrite your manuscript. But in the end, it will be worth it. Why? Because only an objective outsider can really edit your manuscript. Your friends, your family, your high school rhetoric teacher—none of these people will be honest with you. Why? Because if you know them well enough and like them well enough to ask for their feedback, they will find it impossible to tell you that your writing is crap. A professional editor won’t have that problem—and if he or she does, if he or she can’t give you honest feedback, then you’ve hired the wrong editor. A good editor should tell you when your manuscript makes your butt look fat.
3. Hire a Professional Designer
Even the best manuscript can be derailed by a book that suffers from a poorly designed interior and a cover that looks like it was drawn by a high school student. Here at Chicago Book Review, we have received self-published books in which the text was marred by varying fonts, in which the entire book was set in 7-point Times with quarter-inch margins, in which there were no page numbers. We have received books with titles, covers, and back cover copy so vague it’s difficult to tell at a glance whether the title is fiction or nonfiction. We have received books with highly pixelated interior photos published at such a low resolution that one wonders why the author bothered to include the images in the first place. Just as a professional editor can help polish your manuscript to an alluring luster, a professional designer can help you turn out a package that is as beautiful to look at as it is enjoyable to read. Books are packages. They are little gifts. Chapter openers, running heads and feet, text font, leading and kerning, front and back cover design, flap and back cover copy—all of these work together to create something beautiful to look at, something easy on the eyes, something so lovely that readers can’t put it down. Maybe you’ve heard this one before, but people judge books by their covers. Getting the cover right—and every other aspect of the book’s design—is crucial.
4. Treat Your Self-Published Book As a Small Business Venture
This, my friends, is where most self-published authors fall flat on their faces. Most self-published authors don’t look beyond seeing their name in print, on the cover of their very own book. They are star-struck by the notion of being a Published Author. But seeing your book in print is merely the beginning. You have to work on distribution. You have to work on sales. You have to work on marketing and publicity. You have to be willing to lug around cartons of books to every appropriate conference and convention you can drive your SUV to so that you can sit in an exhibit hall full of other self-published authors and hope that someone will stop by your table and ask you to sign a copy of your book, which you will have just sold to them after convincing them how great it is. You must be willing and able to morph from “author” to “salesperson.”
In addition to all of this, successful self-published authors must put a professional shine on everything they do that is related to themselves and their books. They must issue well-written, effective press releases and send them to the right contacts at the right media outlets. They must craft creative, attractive sell sheets that tout their books and themselves. They must work every social media platform they can, promoting their book through Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, YouTube, and so on and so forth. And all of this—every single piece of marketing and PR collateral—must look professional. It must be well designed and well written. Here at Chicago Book Review, we have received self-published books with (I am not making this up) descriptions of books hastily written in pencil on lined grade-school paper, the tattered edges clear evidence that the paper was torn from a spiral notebook. We have received books with index cards jammed into them, a “thanks for reviewing” note illegibly scrawled in pink ballpoint ink. If you can’t be bothered to promote your book in a professional way, what makes you think that any reviewer will believe your book was written in a professional manner? Your book is your business. Treat it as such.
5. Build Your Platform—and Start Doing It Right Now
Marketing yourself and building your brand after you’ve published your self-published book isn’t a bad idea at all—except that you’re already behind the eight ball. Too many authors wait far too long to build their personal brands, and doing this is a crucial step toward successful self-publishing. If no one knows who you are, if no one knows about you and your book, how will they ever find it, buy it, read it, or review it? Building your platform means making the most of social media. It means becoming a subject-matter expert on the topic about which you’re writing. It means getting your poems, short stories, and essays published in journals and magazines, whether print or digital. It means blogging frequently and consistently and building a loyal following. It means attending every related conference you can—and, even better, getting slotted as a speaker or panelist. It means making a name for yourself so that readers and reviewers—your fan base—are excited about buying your book before it’s even published.
“A successful self-publisher must fill three roles:
Author, Publisher, and Entrepreneur—or APE.”
These five tips are just that: only five tips. I could go on. And on. Just as many other publishing professionals, writers, and reviewers have. There is no shortage of information out there about what it takes to successfully self-publish a title that resonates with readers, garners reviews, and sells well. But the reality is that every single facet of your self-published book must sparkle with the luster of professionalism, from manuscript to design to marketing. Self-published titles that reek of amateurism have little chance of getting reviewed at all, much less earning a positive review. But those self-published titles that are well written, well edited, well designed, and well promoted have a much better chance of avoiding being tossed aside into the teetering pile of give-away books that end up being donated to the local library.
The bottom line is this: “self-published” should not be a synonym for “amateur.”