Publishing FAQ

(Answers posted in July 2014, with edits/updates added as needed)

People ask me questions about publishing– why I chose not to go through an agent and try for a big publisher, what the indie publishing process was like, etc. Sometimes they don’t ask the more awkward questions, but I can tell they want to. Asking someone, “So did you just get sick of rejection and give up, or what?” can be difficult. I respect that.

I’ll try to answer some of those questions here, along with a few I wish I’d thought to ask sooner. If you have any you’d like to add, please leave a comment. If anyone wants to see a writing FAQ page, leave your questions here or send me an e-mail at kate.sparkes (at) live.ca.

I won’t discuss exact costs or sales figures here. It’s just not something I want to get into. I will, however, link to the websites of people whose services I used, in case you want to check them out for yourself.

I’m not bitter, militant, defensive, or anti-publisher. I’d like to work with them on a project some day, if it feels right for everyone. If you want drama, this isn’t the place to find it. I just want everyone to get along and respect other people’s decisions.

So what is independent publishing? Is that like self-publishing?

It’s exactly like self-publishing, but that term tends to carry with it an image of sad people who couldn’t get published, so they go through a vanity publisher and keep boxes of their books in their garage until they rot. Things have changed a lot since those days, so many authors prefer the term “indie” or “author-publisher,” as they accurately reflect the situation as it stands today.

The term “indie author” can be confusing when there are also small presses out there that call themselves independent publishers. They’re still using the traditional model (accepting submissions, paying royalties), but on a smaller scale, and aren’t the same thing as an independent author. I guess we’re still working out the terminology.

So what does it mean today? Indie authors write our books, then take responsibility for bringing them up to publishable standards. Well… ideally. I won’t pretend that there aren’t people tossing first drafts up on Amazon, hoping to make a quick buck. But an increasing number are treating this like the business it is, investing money in editors, cover designers, proofreaders, and formatters as needed to produce work that is on-par with what comes out of traditional publishing houses. We’re also responsible for distribution and marketing.

And for many of us it’s our first choice, not a last resort.

Are you doing this because no one wanted to buy your work?

Nope. People publish independently for many reasons. Some try to get an agent and a publisher first, and self-publish as a last resort. Of those people, many are very successful and put out fantastic books that the world would have missed out on otherwise. Publishers reject a lot of great books because they’re not on-trend, or the publisher doesn’t think they’re marketable. Fair enough. But that doesn’t mean these stories deserve to be buried under the author’s bed forever.

Others choose this route because it’s a better fit for our needs. I started querying agents (two of them, I think) before I learned about what was happening in the world of indie publishing. Once I realized that going it alone was a viable (and for some, preferable) option, I put that on hold while I did more research. It was a tough decision, but I have no regrets about the publishing path I chose.

Oh, and some serious badasses get six-figure offers from publishers and turn them down in favour of self-publishing. If nothing else, that says something about how the industry is changing.

Why would you want to do that?

That’s a tough one to answer without potentially stepping on the toes of those who are going through small publishers or agents. For the record, I respect every path to publication, and see the advantages of each. I celebrate with friends who want and get contracts with publishers. I buy and read books from small press, large publishers, and indie sources. We good?

For me, the biggest issue was control. I’ve seen books from small publishers that were horribly edited, and decided I wanted to choose my own editor. I’ve heard horror stories of books failing because of bad covers, and wanted to choose my own designer (and to have the ability to change covers if one didn’t work out). I won’t often pay more than $7.99 for an e-book (and prefer under $5), and would have felt like a hypocrite if I’d asked readers to pay more for mine. I wanted to be able to play with pricing for special promotions. I wanted final say on what changes I made to my work. I didn’t want to have to worry about companies playing dirty with contracts and taking advantage of me. It happens. I wanted to be able to publish what I want, when I want. I wanted to be able to distribute for all e-readers, and to put out a paperback for people who don’t use those. I wanted to keep the rights to my books.  I wanted 70% royalties on e-books rather than < 20%.

I know. I’m greedy.

It is extra work, it does cost money up front, and maybe it is harder to get noticed this way (though it seems that most mid-list authors with big publishers are doing their own promotion, anyway). I understand why many people would rather not take this route themselves. There are no guarantees either way. I might not make back what I spent on this book (*see below for update). But there’s a good chance that it never would have seen the light of day if I’d wanted a Big Fat Advance-type deal. They say most indie books never succeed… well, most submitted to agents never get published at all. It’s just the way it goes.

Will I submit to agents some day? Definitely. I’d love to be a hybrid author. But this is how I decided to start out.

You do your research, you weigh the risks and benefits of every path, and you make your choice. I’ll be here to celebrate with you, whatever you do.

*Update: Not an issue. The book made its costs back, covered the next book, and then some (as of 60 days after publication). This doesn’t always happen, and it was a pleasant surprise. So DEFINITELY no regrets on paying for editing and cover art. I doubt the book would have been as successful without them.

But what about validation? And don’t you want to see your book at Walmart?

Validation used to be a HUGE thing for me. I wanted that stamp of approval so badly that I’d probably have signed with any agent who wanted me, or got suckered into one of those horrible e-book only contracts that big publishers were gouging authors with on new imprints a while back. Now… not so much. I’m confident in my abilities and in my work, and in the skills of my editor. I know this book is worth putting out there, and for me, getting a pat on the head from a person in a suit isn’t worth the cost. Again, others feel differently, and I respect that.

As for seeing my book in Walmart/Chapters/wherever, that would be cool. But even traditional publishing doesn’t guarantee that. Not every book published gets into stores, and even fewer get anything better than the privilege of sitting spine-out on a shelf. Even then, a book might only have a month to make a splash and sell well before it gets discounted, remaindered, and sent back.

But hey, never say never. Maybe someone will offer me a print-only deal some day, and you will see the Bound Trilogy on those shelves. Maybe another book. But I’m not going to sweat it either way.

In the end, the only validation I really care about comes from readers*.

*Update: And they’ve been amazing. They’re the reason I’m working my butt off to get my best work out there ASAP.

So did you go through iUniverse? Xlibris? Whatever it is that one of those big publishers just bought?

No. These are vanity publishers, and generally a bad idea. For more information on why, see here and here. If you’re signing a contract with a publisher, they should be paying you. This is one time when yearning for a stamp of approval can be a costly mistake.

I don’t look down on anyone who uses these services, but I would caution people to do plenty of research before signing any contract.

I hired my own freelance editor, cover designer, etc. based on recommendations, work they’d done for other people, and/or sample work they did for me. I paid one-time fees, and am not paying them a percentage of sales.

Will you submit to agents for future books/series?

For now it’s not a priority, but I’m definitely looking at it. Like I said, there are advantages to both routes to publication.

What did the process look like?

For me, it looked like this. Other people approach things differently.

  • write a book. Revise it until it’s a good book, and then revise it more until it’s a damned good book, or at least the best I can make it on my own.
  • Set up blog. Post stuff. Follow other people, make contacts and friends. Feel guilty about how much fun it is.
  • Let early (beta) readers read it and rip it apart. Cry a little. Put on big girl panties. Revise.
  • Research and hire editor for developmental and line edits. Cringe at the cost for the former. Get edits back, realize that this was (at least in my case) a FANTASTIC investment. Edit again, squealing all the while about how much more epic this thing is now, and how much I’m learning.
  • Okay, not all the while. It’s a lot of work, and I may have sworn at my dear editor on a number of occasions. But worth it.
  • Research, choose, and hire a cover designer. I found mine by checking the cover credit on a book I liked and going to the designer’s website. Easy peasy.
  • Send information (synopsis, character descriptions, relevant symbols, ideas, themes, mood…) to cover designer. Look over mock-up ideas. Scrap all. Pray designer isn’t frustrated. Keep going until the right cover emerges. Celebrate.
  • Register for ISBNs. These are free in Canada, and it’s quite simple to register as a publisher.
  • Proofread. Send advance copies to people who offered to help proofread. Realize how COMPLETELY necessary it is to get other people’s eyes on a project.
  • Write cover copy/sales blurb. Gain several grey hairs. Realize that this may be the hardest thing about the publishing process. Scream. Rant. Finish.
  • Try to format. Give up when it looks really meh and unprofessional. Empty piggy bank to hire a friend-of-a-friend, reasonably-priced formatter who’s done beautiful work for others.
  • Be giddy when advance readers respond with beautiful, kind words. Enjoy this moment, knowing that they’re sincere in their praise, but not everyone will be so kind in the future.
  • send formatted ARCs (advance review copies) to kind souls who have offered to read and review honestly.
  • upload formatted files to Amazon and to Draft2Digital, which will distribute to Kobo, B&N, Apple (iBooks),  and Scribd.
  • check for formatting issues, correct.
  • Upload to CreateSpace, which is how I’m doing paperbacks. Send final page count to cover designer so she can do the full cover. Order proof, make corrections, resubmit. Approve.
  • Book goes up for sale.
  • Weep with relief. Host launch party on Facebook. Have fun. Realize that this has been my dream since I was a kid, and try to enjoy the moment.
  • Get EIN from US government for tax purposes. Submit to Amazon, etc. so that they don’t withhold my money. Have HUGE moment of panic (okay, days of it) when something goes wrong with the paperwork. Find out that Amazon customer service is fantastic, get that resolved.
  • Get back to work on the next book.

You forgot promotion.

That’s not a question. But you’re right, I didn’t mention that. I’m not spending money on promotion for this book. I had a fantastic cover reveal day (thanks to everyone who supported that!). I’m posting occasional updates on my blog, but it won’t interfere with regular posts. I’ll promote there, too, but I won’t annoy people with it. A few generous souls have offered to announce the release and/or do author interviews on their blogs, which expands the number of people I’ll reach. I have a Facebook author page and a Twitter account, but again, I won’t be spamming my followers.

I’ll ask some book review blogs to take a look.

I’m not going to blow my money or risk annoying people when I only have one book to sell, and I won’t take time away from writing the next book to promote this one. This is a long game. I can gain momentum slowly.

That said, if anyone likes the book and wants to help spread the word, go for it! You’re amazing. I love you. Really.

So are you going to be a millionaire after this comes out?

Um… no. Most authors need at least 3-5 books to find their readers, which is why I’m focusing on writing more. The odds of a debut novel becoming a smash hit are itty bitty. Teeny tiny. It happens, yes. But I’m not counting on it. The hope is that each book I put out will pull in new readers. And word of mouth is incredibly important. That’s why it helps so much when readers leave positive reviews, and recommend a book to their friends. But that takes time.

At least I don’t have to worry about my contract being cancelled if book one doesn’t earn out an advance.

It is interesting to note that while the big-name bestsellers, the ones who one the lottery, are still usually traditionally published, there are many (possibly more) independent authors quitting their jobs to write full-time. That’s all I’m hoping for, some day.

For the record, most books “fail,” either by not selling many copies or by not earning out their advance. It’s just how it goes. There’s no shame in it.

EDIT: It did just fine, far better than I expected. Better than anyone expected, actually. Thanks, Amazon! But I’m still not a millionaire.

Why do you use the name Sparrowcat Press? Are you trying to trick people into thinking you’re REALLY published?

Not at all. In fact, I suspect that most people really don’t care what imprint is on a book, if any, as long as the book is a good one. But this is a business. When I sell art, I have a shop name on Etsy. If I were opening up a one-woman bookkeeping business, I’d have a business name. I’m a small publisher, even if it’s only for my own books. It’s a business, and deserves to be treated as such.

And for the record, I am really published. Thanks for asking.

Sounds good. But there are disadvantages to indie publishing, right?

For sure. The up-front cost was a big factor– thank God for tax refunds, and for a family that was willing to let me use ours this year for editing. Not everyone pays for these services; some barter for them, trade off with other authors for editing services, and/or design their own covers. Fantastic if you’re qualified, but I didn’t trust myself with any of that.

Another issue is the stigma that lingers in some people’s minds like a toxic fart in a port-a-potty. Those people won’t even look at a book that doesn’t have a publisher’s stamp of approval. They assume that anything self-published just wasn’t good enough to make it anywhere else. False, but that’s the perception. And a lot of book reviewers won’t accept submissions from author-publishers.

I can’t blame those reviewers, really. There are a lot of people putting sub-standard work out there, and it must be a huge job just to sort through submissions. It does frustrate me that I’ve put this much effort into producing a professional book that will still be turned away on general principle, but that’s a trade-off I was willing to make.

I hope that eventually better-quality indie work (which there is SO MUCH OF out there) will rise to the top. Until then, we’ll just keep working our asses off to put out top-quality work, and hope the stigma will fade. My hope is that some day, indie authors will be treated like indie musicians and artists. I’m not sure what the perceived difference is, actually.

Yeah, I won’t read self-published stuff. There’s too much crap out there.

Your loss, I guess. I won’t pretend there isn’t junk out there, and much of it wrapped in pretty covers and expensive promotions. My suggestion would be to read sales descriptions and if something grabs you, take a look at the sample on Amazon.com. If you have a Kindle, you can probably download it. Otherwise, take a peek online. You’ll be able to sort out most of what you won’t like within a page or two. I have high standards for reading, myself, and not enough time that I can waste it on books I won’t enjoy. This is what I do.

Reviews can help, but there are a lot of fake ones out there. I put more faith in samples.

If you’re like me, you’ll also ignore books with grammatical errors and awkward writing in their pretty, pretty promo teasers. Eliminates a lot of books.

(Now that I’ve said that, I’ll make a big error somewhere. And for the record, I encourage you to read the sample for my books, too.)

Fine, you don’t expect to make a million bucks and be on Oprah any time soon. But I loved the book, and want to see it do well. How can I help?

Why, thank you for asking, New Best Friend! Here are a few ideas that can help.

  • I said that reviews don’t mean much to me as a reader, but they do for others. Leaving a positive and honest review is a HUGE help to a writer! Having reviews on Amazon shows that people are buying, reading, and enjoying a book. If it gets enough good reviews, Amazon will start promoting that book and suggesting it to readers. And when an author wants to run a promotion, we only have a chance of advertising that through big e-mail lists if we meet minimum review requirements. It only takes a few minutes, but a review (particularly on Amazon.com, your local Amazon retailer, and Goodreads) is a great way to say “thanks” to an author who’s entertained you.
  • Ads don’t sell books. Word of mouth does, and we can’t buy that. If you loved a book, tell your friends and family who like the same kind of books you do. Buy a paperback copy to donate to your library, if they’ll accept them. If the book is available to be ordered through bookstores, ask to have it brought in if you’re looking for gift copies.
  • Yes, gift copies are a great idea. You might even be able to order them autographed.  *cough*
  • Don’t spam anywhere, ever, but if it comes up in conversation, mention a book you loved online. In a Facebook post asking for recommendations, perhaps. No, it probably won’t send people rushing out to buy right away, but it’s positive exposure, and that helps.
  • Follow the author’s blog if it interests you, and/or their facebook page. Sign up for the newsletter. Share your excitement over upcoming releases.
  • Read the paperback on the bus. Hope that attractive (insert your favourite kind of person here) asks about it.
  • Don’t pirate books. I don’t get worked up about it, and understand that it really doesn’t hurt sales much. But remember that if you didn’t pay for the book, the author’s not making the money that s/he needs to justify working on the next one. If you can’t afford $5 for a book, contact the author. You might be able to get a free e-book copy in exchange for an honest review, or something like that. Stranger things have happened. Or sign up for his/her mailing list to find out about sales and free days. (And no, e-mailing books to your friends isn’t the same as lending them your paperback copy, because sending a file means they never have any reason to buy a copy and support the author. It’s more like setting up a printing press in your garage. We can’t stop you, and it’s a grey area, but it’s something to think about.)
  • Be civil when someone trashes a book you love. If you threaten to kill every person who didn’t like the heroine, it reflects badly on the author, and we really can’t afford that.

I guess that’s it for now. Hope you found what you were looking for!

MY TEAM:

editors:

Joshua Essoe

Sue Archer

cover design:

Ravven

 

RESOURCES*:

Books:

Be the Monkey by Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler. Entertaining, but at times quite crude. Both of these men come from backgrounds in traditional publishing and are doing very well now, publishing their own work. This is an interesting discussion if you’re looking for more on the why of going it alone.

Write, Publish, Repeat by Johnny B Truant and Sean Platt. Great talk on the why, but more on the how. Entertaining, too.

Let’s Get Digital: How to Self-Publish, and Why You Should by David Gaughran

Rise of the Machines: Human Authors in a Digital World by Kristen Lamb. Lots here about platforms, promotion, and how the publishing landscape is changing.

The Indie Author Survival Guide by Susan Kaye Quinn. A fantastic, simple, start-to-finish guide to the publishing process

Blogs:

The Passive Voice. “Passive Guy” posts industry-related articles, and the comments are always worth reading.

A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing. Joe Konrath’s blog. He’s extremely pro-indie and uses strong language, so don’t go there if you’re thin-skinned or easily offended. But he posts great information, and he’s a smart guy. As someone else said, “I don’t always agree with Joe, but I always want to know what he has to say.”

Business Rusch (Kristine Kathryn Rusch). Fantastic business articles for writers.

Dean Wesley Smith. I don’t agree with his stance on “put as much stuff out as you can without rewriting, just improve as you go.” But the man has an excellent series called “Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing” that really opened my eyes to how much I should NOT expect an agent or publisher to do for me, and knocked those stars right out of my eyes. His “How to think like a Publisher” series is great, too. Links at the top of his blog.

*Yes, these are all pro-indie. Yes, I’ve done reading on both sides of the issue. This is what’s relevant here for those wondering about how and why people do this. They may no longer be the most up-to-date resources, but they’re what helped me waaaay back in 2013/2014.


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