Because it’s a FAQ: some thoughts on self-publishing

Reader M asked me:

I was wondering what your experience with Lulu.com has been to self-publish your books?

Did you engage (heh) them for marketing? For editing? Or simply for publishing??

This sort of inquiry is pretty much a FAQ at this point, so I thought I'd share a slightly-edited version of my reply to him with the rest of the class:

Hi M,

I've been really happy with Lulu. Everyone I've ever talked with there has easy to work with, and very supportive of my work. 

When I first took my work there, they reached out to me and offered to do some marketing for me, because it was the kind of relationship that made sense for both of us: I got good marketing and support, and they had a moderately high profile example to show prospective self-publishers what their marketing and support could do.

Remember, though, that the responsibility to promote falls on the author's shoulders, and a book will sell as well as you promote it. A publisher can only get you in a place where you'll be seen and then support you once you're there; nothing is guaranteed.

Also, it's a little cart-before-the-horse to be worrying about marketing and publicity when you're on the first draft. All the marketing and publicity in the world won't matter if you don't write a compelling story that engages (ha. ha. ha.) your readers. 

As far as editorial goes, a content editor is a VERY personal and important relationship to have, so I wouldn't grab one at random, or stay with one who doesn't work as hard as you do. You should work with someone who understands what kind of story you want to tell, has experience editing that kind of story, and who has earned your respect. Your editor is someone who you're going to be accountable to, who is going to help you make your work better, make you a better writer, and ultimately be more of a partner than you ever though they would be. Do not rush into an editorial relationship, especially when you're self-publishing.

Copy editors, though just as important as content editors, aren't as personal. You still want someone who is going to let your voice come through, so that's important, but they're mostly going to make sure those inevitable spelling and grammar errors don't end up in your final manuscript.

I've also learned that it's really important to have a designer layout your final book. After publishing a lot of books, I can tell you that we writers are good at putting words together, but we're not as good at laying them out on the page as we think we are. If you're doing an eBook, you can probably do it yourself in Sigil or whatever your preferred markup editor is, but for print, you absolutely want to work with someone who can build you an interior design that looks great. 

I encourage you to make sure your work is available for Kindle, Nook, and iBooks, as well, because people read in a lot of different places and formats these days. It's also a really good idea to establish relationships with indie booksellers and librarians, because they are awesome.

If you haven't, I recommend reading Dan Poynter's book on Self Publishing, as well as the Complete Guide to Self Publishing by Tom and Marilyn Ross. If you're on Google Plus, go add Evo Terra to a circle RIGHT NOW because he's the smartest indie publishing guru I've ever listened to. 

I hope this helps you a little bit.

Good luck!

Wil

My only disappointment with Lulu is that the company stopped doing digital files like audio books, but I understand that since they returned their focus to only books, it's been good for their authors. Finding a new place to host and sell my audio books has been a real pain in the ass. The Audible agreement is unacceptable to me, and everything else I've been able to find seems to be geared toward bands, so I'm still mostly in the wilderness at the moment (I say mostly, because Scott Sigler pointed me to what looks like a perfect solution for me, but nothing's been set in stone, yet.)

So there you go. This isn't exhaustive by any means, and while I'm not an expert, I have had a lot of experience so I mostly know what I'm talking about. I hope this is helpful for indie authors who Get Excited and Make Things.

If you have personal experience to share, or advice that's been helpful to you as an indie creator (not just authors), I'd love it if you'd leave a comment.

42 thoughts on “Because it’s a FAQ: some thoughts on self-publishing”

  1. Also, if you will indulge a bit of self promoting: You can save 30% on anything from Lulu between now and January 31 if you use the code SHELFSTOCK305 at checkout.

  2. I’ll add in my vote of support for Lulu. They’ve always been pretty good to me.
    Anyway, some of my experiences; if you find that your stuff isn’t selling, it isn’t necessarily because your work is bad. Everyone and their mother can self-publish something these days, so you’ve got a ton of competition. If someone hasn’t bought your book, odds are they just haven’t heard of you. That is the hard part. But it can be helped. Make yourself a page on Facebook and G+ and hit the social networks.
    More importantly, build a relationship with potential readers. Don’t just say, ‘Here it is, read it.’ Offer them something. Communicate with them, engage (I know, I know) with them. Don’t be a faceless author.
    I’ve also found that you get more attention when you have more than one book published. Some people like to see that you have a variety of material out, and some will be hesitant about buying from an author with just one book. Of course this is easier to say than do, but keep working at it.
    Most importantly… just don’t give up. Persistence is key and it can yield some good results. Remember that you’re a grain of sand on a beach when you first start out and getting attention is the hardest part, but if you put out a good product (for the sake of brevity I’m ignoring the pre-publishing stuff already covered above) and keep pushing it, you’ll get some attention. Look for reviewers, get yourself a site, communicate and ask for help. It’s not exactly difficult, just time-consuming.
    And I think I’ll finally get around to grabbing your books, Mr. Wheaton. :P

  3. Hey! You’re first to comment! That’s tough to do on Wil’s blog, grats!
    Seriously, never feel troubled by passing on info like this, now if you were just saying “Buy my book at X% off,” that may be direct self-promotion, but this just let’s me know that I could save on anything there with a code I wouldn’t have had otherwise, so that’s cool by me.

  4. Check out sites that allow self-published works and find reviews of new books. Don’t read the 5 star reviews, though. Read the 1 star reviews. Find out what your potential audience HATES. Now go back and read your own work. Are you guilty of those flaws? The most common complaints I’ve found are a lack of proofreading and an expository writing style so juvenile as to be insulting.

  5. Wil,
    This is awesome. What kind of advice do you have for someone who is just starting out and can’t afford marketing/editors? Someone suggested I look for English students who are looking to become editors and see if they’ll do it on the cheap to get experience. (I sent you a copy of my first book in digital format as a gift; if you even started to read it, you’ll see I badly need an editor! I’m re-editing it myself, but I think it’ll still have errors.)
    As for marketing, I’m scared that my books – my current one once it’s re-edited and any future ones – will languish in Unknown Author Hell. I just don’t know how to market it to people, despite trying to find good advice online.
    – John

  6. I went with Lulu on your recommendation, Wil and it was a great decision. I am very happy with the finished product for the first Brax Book (available here). It turned out even better than I thought it would. It was a lot of hard work, but for webcomics and other comics I think it is a great solution as you can just take your raw files and plug them into their templates and roll from there. Mind you, we did a ton of tweaking after that step but it was pretty easy to get the ball rolling. If you use inDesign it’s even easier as they have specific inDesign templates and layouts. We had to do some trial and error with bleeds and stuff like that but the community and their own support people are extremely helpful.
    As far as marketing goes, I am not a wizard on that front at all but I have found that getting plugged into places like Goodreads and other communities that support independent authors and artists is a very good start.

  7. Hi… Wil can delete this if he seems fit, but I’m a freelance copywriter/editor looking for more work. However, my experience is mainly in website content, not books. I can correct for errors. I could speak with you if you’re interested to see if it would be feasible. Just offering. Thanks

  8. Interesting reading, and I think it’s important to caution new writers about the amount of legwork involved in self-promotion.
    A view from the other side of the fence: after finishing my first novel, I sent it off to dozens of publishers and agents, and eventually placed it with a middling-small press which specialized in science fiction and seemed a good fit for a novel about future gaming. After the electronic edition came out, I was surprised to find that they subcontract their print publication to LuLu.com. The problem with using a middleman between me and LuLu (and between me and Amazon, and between me and B&N, etc.) is that I have no control over pricing or format. I won an award and tried to update the book’s LuLu page, but could not because I’m not the publisher, just the author, and thus have no control over the website. I actually asked my publisher to significantly reduce the price of the book to a more reasonable price point for e-book sales, and was entirely ignored.
    So, next book I’ll probably go for self-publishing in some fashion.

  9. I just published my first e-book on Amazon this month. Marketing has been a challenging process and I’ve been second-guessng my decision to bypass mainstream publishing. Your advice, plus the excellent comments here, all encourage me.
    I was lucky enough to find an excellent copy editor who would work within my low budget, but had to forego the content editing, other than feedback from first readers (which actually helped a lot). Thing is, I got excited and made something; a contemporary fantasy and it’s a story I believe in. My next step is to move the novel into print, and Lulu has been at the top of my list to investigate (thanks for that confirmation, too!). Is Lulu cost prohibitive to someone with limited resources?

  10. -stupid- self promotion here. But actually http://login.musicthatpays.com/13207 is just beginning to, but they do have a section for audio book type things. yes at the moment it’s all geared towards bands.
    but seriously, look into it. It is actually pretty bad ass with their set up.
    I’m doing it for a local recording studio here in Pueblo Co, and they say so far they’ve actually really liked how it is all set up.
    I honestly suck with the “details” but I know all the infos available in the “back office”. I know it’s free to set up your account ( I wouldn’t suggest using IE to go to the web page apparently it fails).
    But even if you decide not to go that route the infos free (also for the artist in you, their system will make SOPA and the like unneeded cause they essentially pay people not to steal)

  11. I ordered one of your books (Mem of Future I) at Lulu over a year ago. Book never arrived. They refused to refund my money or send a new one. Will never buy from them again.

  12. My advice would be:
    Editing is Key – As Wil said, don’t skip this step. Find an experience editor and heed their advice. If you can’t afford an editor (pros will run you about $1 to $1.50 per page, which is 250 words), then try an established online writer’s group, like LitReactor. Note that there is a difference between content editing and proofreading. Diana Cox is amazing, and has very reasonable rates for proofing (http://www.novelproofreading.com/)
    Hire Out for Cover Art – Unless you happen to be an artist and graphic designer as well as a writer, go ahead and hire this out. Price ranges vary, but make sure the person you use has experience with book covers. This really is a different skill set from generic graphic design. I use Vincent Chong, but there are lots of other great artists out there (google Carl Graves).
    Blog It – Keep a blog, and have it automatically push updates to a Facebook fan page and twitter. Don’t spam your work, just be entertaining and relevant.
    It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint – Be in it for the long haul. You’ll gain readership over time, not overnight. Just keep working and increasing your virtual shelf space.
    Mike

  13. Since Lulu is print on demand, there are no up front costs. They print the books as they are ordered. There is a base cost of the book that goes to Lulu, anything you charge on top of that goes to you.

  14. My experience publishing my webcomic compilation, The Quest for the Scepter Thingie, through Lulu has been mostly positive. There have been a few minor production blips (greyscale areas coming out too dark, missing pages, etc.), but overall, the product I’ve ordered has been of good quality. Just in case you were asking.:)

  15. Hi Wil,
    Thanks for the article. I am a createspace kinda girl. I did a proof run of my book, Recovering the Goddess: My journey to self-love, on both LuLu and createspace. I must say, I am way more satisfied with the later. Marketing has been very difficult though, as I am not quite the cult phenom as yourself. Still, I love writing, and I love the thrill of the chase!
    Thanks again~

  16. The royalty split doesn't make me happy. Unless I give Audible 3 year exclusivity, the *best* I can do is 50% if I sell thousands of copies. I suppose there's the chance someone can hit tens of thousands or maybe hundreds of thousands of people with Audible, but I'm an independent publisher in that world who reaches maybe 1000 reliable customers with every release.
    At Lulu, I was getting 80% of each sale, no matter what, with no exclusivity requirements or DRM, so I'm looking for something similar to that, even if it means I have to spend money on my own to get someone to code a storefront and then deal with hosting sales.

  17. Hey Wil,
    Good advice for writers, it lines up with everything I’ve learned in the past two years jumping in head first into the publishing world. Thanks for the mention; BackMyBook is my baby and I’m hoping it does good for all the indie authors out there. Give me a shout whenever its convenient for you.
    Tay

  18. I’ve only done a few minor projects with Lulu, so I can’t speak for marketing, professional editing, etc.
    My first few were a disaster…and then I talked to someone in the community and realized that there were templates for each of the different-sized books that I was supposed to be following. It seems like something so stupid simple that I could figure out myself but…*shrugs*…I didn’t manage it.
    My first actual novel, however, had everything in place. I followed the template guidelines, made a cover for myself, organized the book pretty much like a professional book (including a copyright page) and laid the chapters out exactly as I wanted them. The hardest part wasn’t even Lulu’s fault–it was getting the headers and footers to cooperate in Word, so the pages would be headed and numbered the same way all the way through the book!
    One thing that I discovered that helped in laying out the book (something I’m repeating with my current Lulu project) is using Excel to visually organize the pages (like virtual notecards, if you will). For example, my opening pages line reads:
    Title (R), Copyright (L), Dedication (R), Blank (L), Blank (R), Blank (L), Blank (R), Char Pg. 1 (L)
    I designate left and right on each page, so I know how it will be laid out in the book–especially important when I like to have the chapters always start on the right side. Therefore, with the help of my spreadsheet, I know that if chapter seventeen is nineteen pages long, I’ll have to put a page break at the beginning of the chapter eighteen document to ensure continuity.
    But I digress..
    When I let a few people read my first novel, they said nothing about the layout–they were more focused on my writing. And how cool it was that I was in print–with minimum effort, thanks to Lulu. ^_^

  19. Out of curiosity, if you do whip up your own site for the audiobooks, does it involve anything beyond collecting a payment and giving them a link to download an audio file? Just wondering how it works…especially how you protect your work from just being posted somewhere.

  20. Hey, Wil. Although I opted to go with Createspace for my paperback publishing, I couldn’t agree more with what you’ve shared here. As a writer, the need for a good editor is something that can’t be stressed enough. Whenever anyone tells me that they’re going to try their hand at writing, the first thing I always tell them is find a good editor!
    A good editor should know how to balance the many roles he or she will have to fill. My own editor, for example, is a great cheerleader, helping keep me encouraged and motivated, and a task master, helping me set achievable deadlines and stick to them. She’s also more than willing to give me the proverbial smack upside the head to keep me honest and make sure I’m not cutting corners.
    I’m currently working on my third book and I can tell you, having my editor on board has made me a MUCH better writer than I was at the start! :)

  21. Wil,
    Not sure what the issue is with Audible’s license, but have you looked at ACX http://www.acx.com/ ? Neil Gaiman speaks highly of them. Since you like doing your own audiobooks, you can be the rights holder and narrator/producer and take home almost all the income. I’m on there as a narrator, and it seems like a pretty good way for authors to get their books recorded, but that’s just my opinion – I’m not published and trying to maximize my return on the investment.

  22. I used Lulu for the first time two months ago to publish a couple of books. I love it and still love it BUT after going to Amazon, I prefer buying my own copies through Amazon. There’s a $40.00 fee you can pay for your title which grants you a few perks such as dirt cheap copies of your book. So for selling to local bookshops, ebay, etc I’m making a good chunk of money more.
    If you have images, diagrams, sheet music, etc in your book Amazon will also tell you if your resolution is high enough and if it’s not it will tell you which pages need to be improved, this is free as it is done automatically when you upload your book. This is something Lulu doesn’t do. Lule does have a pretty kick ass cover designer/uploader thingy though.
    My two cents.

  23. I think the price we pay as authors for our own books is a bit high. The one positive I’ve found with lulu is that friends are more willing to buy from there so I get the better royalty amount than I would at other places.
    Now that I’m in the process of writing the sequel to my first novel, I’m rather reluctant to go with lulu again. I’d like to see some major changes to how the site is run. Starting with a better rotation of featured books.
    As far as marketing goes, I have to rely on word of mouth and my amazon reviews,etc. because I can’t afford the cost of marketing. I know I’m not alone when it comes to lack of funding.

  24. And now for something completely different: I just read on AICN about the big TNG gathering at the Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo, April 27 – 29. You were mentioned on the same line as everyone else!! (http://www.aintitcool.com/node/53099)
    I guess this means you’re sittin’ at the grown ups table from now on?
    Ignatz

  25. My own choice for print was CreateSpace. Their cost-per-unit is much lower and I can charge $14.95 on a 420-page novel and still get some $$ out of it for myself. I’ve had excellent–beyond excellent–customer service experiences there, including one time I complained with no hashtag or anything on twitter and they tracked me down to fix it.
    Ebooks: Upload direct to B&N and Amazon, Smashwords for everywhere else. Format differently for B&N and Amazon than for Smashwords. Be sure to have extra hair on hand because you *will* pull your hair out formatting for Smashwords. It’s ridiculously strict. If you’re not good with twiddly stuff, farm this out. It’s not too expensive and your hair will thank you. (I do my own, but I’m good with twiddly stuff.) I also sell my own books direct to readers in four different formats. DO NOT DRM YOUR BOOKS. You can’t stop pirates; don’t punish your readers.
    Production: Hire an editor. I have a content/development editor, Annetta Ribken, who I passionately adore. I have a distributed proofreading team of beta readers and people who’ve bought the rights to read my books as soon as I’ve finished them–within 24 hours after I write “THE END NO SERIOUSLY MEI STOP EDITING” on the bottom of the page they have the file, and within a week I have a bunch of typos to fix. :) So yeah, people pay me to copy edit my work. I love them dearly. I also have a typographer. I format my own ebooks but pay Michael to make my print books all purty.
    Marketing: Besides your work itself, which should be RUTHLESSLY proofread, you need a professional cover. Don’t use the cover generator at the printer. Make sure it reads well at thumbnail size (critical). There are cover designers at all price points. I found my current on on deviantArt and my first one, who set the entire branding tone for my series, through colleagues. Ask around. You also need a good blurb. (I “doctor” people’s blurbs on the side but won’t link here–you can find me if you need me.) Solicit reviews every time you find a book blogger likely to read your book. I just got one of my best reviews last month, more than a year after the book came out.
    Best marketing advice ever is write write write write. Fill your virtual shelf. Don’t focus on marketing “the book.” Focus on writing.
    I hear you yelling, I CAN’T AFFORD ALL THIS!!! Post a sample and go to Kickstarter. I crowdfunded my first book on my own (to the tune of $2,500) before Kickstarter was really out there, but for book two I did it there. I’m still 11 days from the end of the fundraiser. I asked for $1,500 and at this writing I’m about $50 away from $4,000. That will pay for production/editing of the book, all the rewards, production costs for the audio book of book one, production and cartographer costs for the world map I’ve been trying to finish, and this time I’ll even have some left over for me. Everything I’ve made after book one launched was mine to keep because of the graciousness of pre-sale fans, and the same will be the case when I launch book two in the next month or so.
    I’m happy to talk with anyone about my experiences self-publishing. Just ping me.

  26. After five years of rejection letters, I decided to take the leap. I’ve been “indie published” (it’s what all the cool kids are calling “self published” now) since October 2010 with two books out, one of which won the Garcia Award for Best Fiction Book of the Year.
    Yes, to everything above. I ended up going with CreateSpace because of the low cost and ease of distribution (libraries and bookstores can order your book through them). My book on Lulu would have been about $22 to turn $2 profit. On CreateSpace, it’s $12.99. I couldn’t be happier. A lot of indie publishers are also touting the merits of Lightning Source. They offer much the same service as CreateSpace, but they offer a hardbound option and bookstores can return your book, which makes them more open to the idea of carrying them.
    That said, we are on the brink on that same digital frontier that webseries got a few years ago. You MUST digitally publish to make it in the world today. It’s like having a cell phone. You just have to do it. My eBooks outsell my paper back… well.. this month, paid sales 600 to 1. Freebies, 15,000 to 1.
    Write write write write write (my second book tripled sales of my first book), but I also wanted to point any aspiring authors over to kindleboards.com. It is an absolutely amazing community (totally free!) with a bucketload of indie writers sharing their experience, strength, and hope. It is moderated for good manners, so lurk around a little and familiarize yourselves with the rules. That said, I learned everything I know about indie publishing from that group.

  27. I used Createspace for my book, too – it’s in full color, and they’re the only company that could do that at a reasonable cost.
    The quality’s great, too, so I don’t think you’re making a trade-off there.
    Also, I second the vote for Kickstarter! I’ve got a drive on now for a limited hardcover edition of my new book and hopefully that’ll work out as well as my last fundraiser there.

  28. Hi Wil! You may not remember me, but I met you at PAX Prime 2010 and gave you a copy of my book Edge of Infinity ( http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/edge-of-infinity/5573883 ) I was so happy to have been inspired by you to get my work on Lulu, and it was so cool that you got me to Get Excited and Make Something.
    Your FAQ of advice to new authors is really good, but I would add one more thing for anyone wanting to self-publish: WRITE MORE BOOKS. There is no penalty for doing so with self-publishing, and having more books available means more possibilities for sales.
    I didn’t take my own advice, and sadly didn’t have my sequel ready to give to you at PAX Prime ’11. However I’ve buckled down and I swear that it will be ready by PAX this year. I’m enjoying the writing process even more this time, and I’ve found that–almost magically–one’s second book is always better than the first. Like most things in life, you get better with practice. So for any authors out there who are dissapointed with the sales of their first novel, write more! Keep writing!

  29. Off topic:
    What can @wilw tell us about Calgary, Alberta at the end of April? Rumours of the full original cast of TNG together on stage to celebrate the 25th anniversary?

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