Guest Post: A Year of Self-Publishing Mistakes

Today’s guest post comes to us from author Jason Christie.  Jason’s been featured on A Few Words before.  I asked him to come back to talk with us about his experiences over the past year as a self-published author.  This article is a honest, insightful view into the process and a definite recommended read.  

Jason’s novels are available through Amazon and his blog, Write to Life, is another great place to hear more of his thoughts on the industry and read more of his writing.

A Year of Self-Publishing Mistakes

by Jason Christie

I’m not really comfortable trying to tell people how to write. So I’ll probably just talk about book stuff and maybe work in some random writer things along the way.

I confess to doing everything wrong when I first self-published. I sort of edited and published four novels in a month, trying to get online before Christmas of 2011. Mistake number one. Well, a whole subset of mistakes in that alone. Rush books out in a month, pay for it all year long…

But another problem with that approach is that you get a real boost from releasing new books. A book a month would have a been a much more effective approach. Most of the impact I could have had with my debut was squandered.

Of course, I also had no blog, website, or, well, any sort of support infrastructure in place whatsoever. I did have various pockets of notoriety to draw upon, having achieved some levels of fame in the underground rap and metal worlds, been published on Slashdot.com and Boingboing.net. I was already listed on Wikipedia, Internet Movie Database and other sites. None of those things really translate into book readers.

Previous to publishing, my idea of social media was reminiscing about Usenet, and the days of flaming and trolling. I would much rather insult people than try and befriend them, believe me.

Oh, my covers were pretty crap, too. Now, the muse and I can look at the old covers and point out all sorts of significant imagery that is quite relevant to the book itself. But what you see and the reader sees are worlds apart. Forget what you think is good, early on in the book cover design phase. Look at what is eye-catching from a sales standpoint.

Because I’m sort of ashamed to say it, but once you’ve poured your life and soul into a book, it becomes a commodity. Unless you are independently wealthy or enjoy your day job, you need to look at selling books. Not above art, but parallel to it. The art of selling, as it were.

Now, after my first year here in the indie publishing trenches, I’ve pored over most of my books ten times since then, at least. I found more errors in Stephen King’s UR  than in most of my much longer books. That’s progress, for sure. I’m to the point where I don’t feel the insane urge to reword every sentence. A good feeling.

Along the way, you start to discover weak points in your writing. Like, glaring weak points that you’re too close to to see. Adjectives and adverbs start to stand out as deletable material, along with the 33% overage in commas that seems common to new writers. Things like that.

Now, it’s to my advantage that I’m sort of tech oriented, so at least the book formatting was simple enough to me that I could learn it on the fly. Except I’m terrible about having multiple files and revisions, and just sort of losing track of what’s what. Expect problems in the future if you don’t settle on a sane dating and numbering system for manuscripts, or some other workable method. There are few feelings worse than losing an entire round of edits to a simple mistake.

This is compounded when you make multiple versions for different ebook sites. At one point, I forgot that while I was uploading .DOC files to Smashwords, I was uploading filtered HTML to Amazon. Something like that. Suddenly things went awry when I swapped formats on them one day.

Of course, all the while, you should also be writing and editing more books, bear in mind. Oh, and promoting. And getting reviews.

But like a twelve-step program for recovering author screw-ups, I’m proud to say I have turned things around to a large degree. And one of the biggest steps was biting the bullet and paying for a few cover designs. Money well spent. The price of decent book covers has really come down, and there are many talented artists on the market.

I keep telling people, “Don’t wrote ebooks. Sell covers to people who write ebooks.” It’s a growth market.

But if you plan on writing more than one book, and I really think most people are, I believe your name should be developed as a recognizable logo. That’s what I did in my case, and I’ve never been happier, cover-wise. I won’t clutter up Gwen’s blog with a bunch of my covers, but you can follow the saga at http://jasonzchristie.blogspot.com.

I will include one I did myself, because I am encroaching on the fantasy genre next…

This was stock art from shutterstock.com.I’m relatively sure it’s been used before, maybe more than once. But I really liked it, and did a little to make it my own. I played with the text placement a lot to get it just right. Her hair and lips are enhanced to correspond better with the storyline.

Buying the logo sort of gave me the confidence to try and make some quality covers myself. Just start with a good template, and try to find the perfect stock photo or other elements you need. You’d be surprised at how cheaply you can acquire some very expensive looking images. If you amortize the logo design across ten books, the above cover cost me $6, total.

I don’t recommend going all gangsta with your cover art like I did on my first round of covers. I do still have an image that came from worth1000.com, and I’m seeking a replacement for that one. The rest are all legit, which is sort of good to know. Until Don Henley catches up to me about his lyrics…

By the way, my daughter says my uncharacteristic new cover is a trojan horse, a trick. “They’re going to think it’s a real fantasy book,” she says.

It is. So what if there’s a time-traveling wizard who snorts ground unicorn horn, and a academy for princesses where the economy is based on… Nevermind. Sounds like fantasy to me. But I guess it’s probably closer to Terry Pratchett meets Quentin Tarantino than Tolkien waltzing with Anne McCaffrery.

Let’s see, what else did I do wrong?

Oh, yeah. I launched a series with only the first book written.

After the Dark Tower dark years, where many of us waited in dread for Stephen King to bother to pick up a pen and finish his epic gunslinger saga, some people are reluctant to buy into a series unless several or all of the books are published.

I’m happy to announce that I now have two series, with two books in each, so far. It’s a start. Penultimate Hustle: Japan is the sequel to Radar Love, my romance/adventure title. Cure for Sanity is an off-shoot of Perfect Me, my funny sci-fi novella. PH:J might be my best work yet. On the other hand, so might CfS. You’ll probably have abbreviations for your novels eventually.

Check out the samples here. They sort of support what I’ve been saying about editing, formatting, covers, etc.

What I’ve been working on lately is trying to give a bit more with each book to make them a better value for the reader. Mostly, I’ve done it with art work. I have access to my own art collection and a very talented and tragic little brother, so I’ve managed to make nice title pages for four of my books so far.

But another way you can do it is to become a typography geek. Check out some of those ebooks that have about four pages of legalese in the front of them. Notice how subtle the typeface is, and how that feel is distributed through out the ebook itself. I would recommend studying some of those techniques and employing them. Not everyone can come up with great original art on the fly. Layout and typography can be learned.

I’m sort of utilitarian in that regard, and don’t pay that much attention to that end of things. But I’d love my text to at least look like literary fiction someday.

I find tables of content really add a lot, even though they are mostly unnecessary with ebooks. I like naming the chapters, and I like reading well-named chapter names in other books, so I try to make sure I always do that for the reader.

Once you have your title honed to a fine point, you can add other little things like a list of your other books, samples and previews of other titles, or even a list of other authors you recommend. Flossin’, we call that in the hood, fifteen years ago. Never.

In summation, it takes about a year to really get good at making quality ebooks if you’re making it up as you go along. I’m 10 months into it. Luckily, my writing has carried me through the initial learning phase of self-publishing relatively unscathed. It would have been career suicide for some less fortunate souls. Be warned. Don’t make things hard on yourself. Unless you love a challenge.

Now to do something about my terrible blurbs…

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