Self-publishing a book isn’t easy. I’ve met many self-published authors, and I’ve never personally met one who is independently wealthy. I’ve edited a few books for pretty well-off authors, but writing has not been their only revenue stream. However, even the wealthiest people don’t appreciate wasting money.
Generally, indie book projects have the same focus: Inexpensive publishing, distribution, and publicity. There can certainly be a lot of expenses when it comes to self-publishing. From hiring an editor, to designing the cover and/or page art, laying out the pages, marketing your work, publishing, distributing, engaging your followers, and moving on to your next project, you’re potentially looking at outsourcing a lot of professional services.
But, depending on your level of initiative, your willingness to be an autodidact and your actual project needs, there might be a corner or two you can cut if you do it yourself.
Besides writing the actual book, here are five tasks you can DIY before you self-publish.
1. Tell your story aloud
Share your story over coffee (or on the phone) with a friend or acquaintance. If you can, record yourself doing so, using free conference calling or pairing Skype with Audio Hijack or another program. Then listen back.
When telling stories aloud we tend to make more automatic decisions. What’s your opening sentence? What information do you share first? What gets cut? How does your listener respond?
If the story you’re telling differs substantially from the one you’ve drafted, then you’ll want to ask yourself why.
2. Create your own focus group
Before you spend money on a professional editor, put yourself out there to a few smart, honest, fair friends, co-workers and family members to read your rough draft and give you feedback. You’re not asking for free editing work; you’re just asking for opinions—and people love to share opinions. Similarly, consider looking outside your circle of friends to find beta readers.
Authors need beta readers to understand how people read their book and, like software companies and businesses, to identify confusing or irrelevant spots. Every author has weaknesses. You do too — but you’re blind to them.
Beta readers won’t be. And soliciting feedback from beta readers is your chance to address the weak spots of your manuscript before you publish and share it with the world.
Here’s who you want to enlist:
An acquaintance or a friend of a friend. People close to you can muddle through confusing sections or sentences to guess what you meant. That won’t give you useful feedback. Pick someone who doesn’t know you well enough to figure out your meaning.
A member of your target audience. If your book doesn’t resonate with your readers, you’re not going to sell copies.
Someone who’s not afraid to be honest. You need positive and constructive feedback.
Someone who’s reliable. This seems obvious, but people can overcommit. Be conscientious of your betas’ time and priorities.
You need more than one beta reader. There’s no set number, but three to five is a good start. If you’re bootstrapping your book, find even more betas: good beta readers can mean forgoing the cost of a developmental editor.
After you have an idea of who you want, it’s time to find them. Look at your network. Reach out to people already in your community who fit the criteria. Consider posting in writing groups or on your social media channels. Don’t be afraid to ask. Many people will be honored you want their help.
If you decide to hire a pro (which, as a freelance editor myself, I obviously recommend), it may be less expensive in the long run because you’ve already done some of the cleanup work. Plus, extra eyes on your manuscript are never a mistake.
But, when vetting friends to read your work, be particular. You’re looking for people whose smarts you respect—and whom you trust to tell you the truth. Your mom, for instance, might not be willing to be quite frank enough with you.
As you edit, create a “needs-to-be-fixed” list. It might be something like “add character” or “move section to a different chapter” or “add description to opening scene.” Ask your betas to pay close attention to these items because they’ll be able to determine whether you’re on the right track — or not.
When you get ready to hand your manuscript over, ask your betas which format they prefer. Microsoft Word lends itself best to receiving feedback because it’s easy to add and delete comments, and most people have access to the program. Even if you prefer not to write in Word, converting to .doc from Scrivener or Google docs is simple. Some readers may prefer a hard copy, especially if your manuscript is long. Make it easy for them — they are donating their time to help you.
If you send Word documents, create and save a document for each person. Give each file a user specific name, something like: ManucriptNameBetaReader’sName.doc.
You can merge these documents into one, but when you start incorporating edits and throwing everything together, it’s easy to accidentally delete a comment you need. If you preserve the originals with comments individually as well, you’ll be able to recover any lost feedback.
What do you want from your betas?
Feedback, yes. But don’t be vague: give your betas clear instructions about what feedback you need. Remember that “needs-to-be-fixed” list you created during self-edits? Use that to guide what you need from your betas. Here’s a basic formula for instructions:
Have betas comment with their thoughts as they read, even if it’s to say, “Ooh, I like this” or to make predictions about what will happen next. This shows you how people read your book.
Specify what kind of feedback you’re looking for. My betas looked for:
Areas they felt were missing something or weren’t developed enough
Sections or scenes superfluous to the story
Any part of the story, dialogue, or narrative they didn’t understand or found confusing
The flow and pace of the chapters
Ask them to focus on certain aspects of your book. My manuscript had weak worldbuilding, so I had them pay close attention to it.
Tell them to supply the “why,” not “should.” “I’m confused here because…” or “I don’t like this because…” will be more helpful than “You should do…” statements.
Set a due date. But build in cushion — if you want it back in three weeks, tell them you need it in two.
How do you deal with feedback (without freaking out)?
It’s both exhilarating and terrifying to share something you’ve poured effort into. What if they hate it? The trick to dealing with feedback without freaking out is your mindset. Here’s what you need to remember:
Your goal is to make your book better, and you can’t do that without constructive criticism.
Your betas are nice people who want to help you write a better book, not tear you down.
Having something to fix doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer or that your book isn’t worth publishing.
You don’t have to accept every piece of advice you get.
You can do it.
Dealing with beta feedback is where many writers give up. Don’t be one of them. Sorting through feedback — especially if it’s conflicting advice — gets overwhelming quickly. I had more than 500 beta comments on my novel. Cue the panic!
When you feel that panic and overwhelm — and you will — stop and take a deep breath. Remember: this isn’t about you; it’s about your book. They’re not the same. Pull your ego out of the equation and focus on writing the best book possible.
3. Illustrate the book yourself
Do you like to doodle? Do you take photographs? These are all potential sources of artwork for your book.
If you are planning to publish an ebook, your photos don’t even have to be high-resolution. You can just grab them from Instagram.
But if you’re planning to create a printed version of your book, make sure all photographs and artwork are at least 300 dpi (dots per inch).
Making your book a bestseller is hard enough without an ugly cover sabotaging your efforts.
However there are many reasons why you may be tempted to give it a shot anyway:
You want to play with cover ideas so you know what you want before hiring a designer
You want more control over your cover design
You’re launching a small project, a short ebook or guide, and you don’t want to invest too much
You’re writing a series and don’t want to pay full price for each cover design
4. Learn to lay out the book
Book layout programs like InDesign take a little bit of gumption to learn, but there’s no reason the average person can’t do it.
The cost of the application is often cheaper than the cost of hiring a professional to do it for you. If you’re the techie sort, and especially if you’re planning on publishing more than one book, this might be a good investment for you.
On the other hand, if you’re already short on time, and learning new technology tends to vex you, this might not be the best use of your time.
5. Be your own PR representative
Here’s where you can really cut some corners and do it yourself. There are so many ways to promote a book online these days: social media, your blog, a free WordPress or Squarespace website. You can even take the time to type out thoughtful individual emails to every single person you know to beg… er, persuade them to buy your book.
In this day and age, you don’t necessarily need to hire a publicist to get the word out (although it can be a great idea for some authors and some books).
Know when to delegate and when to DIY
The most important thing to remember is this:
If you’re self-publishing a book, you’re an entrepreneur. It’s important for all entrepreneurs to know when to delegate and when to DIY
One of the factors you should consider is how good you actually are at learning new skills and doing things yourself. If you’re not the type of person who is good at teaching yourself new skills, or if you don’t tend to have a lot of spare time, then you may not want to embark down that road.
I, for instance, am pretty good at bead embroidery, carpentry and changing a tire, but I can tell you right now If I never have to change my own oil again, it’d be too soon, and I’m still pretty bad at keeping up with the dishes after 44 years.
If you hate computers, don’t try to learn a page-layout program just so you can skip paying a professional designer—especially if this is a skill you will only need once.
They are professionals for a reason: they can do it faster and better than you can—and ultimately, that might save you money, depending on how valuable your own time is to you. Anything that helps you outsource work in order to maximize your time and free you up to do what you do best should be considered a worthy expenditure.
Of course, there’s the cold hard fact that you may not have the money to pay for all the parts of this book process you’d love to outsource. On the one hand, it’s important to consider your expenses on this book an investment, so it may behoove you to charge, borrow, or beg (in other words, Kickstarter). On the other hand, going into debt—either literally or by owing your friends favors—may not make a lot of sense for you.
Weigh all the factors: your budget, your skills, your willingness, and what you expect to reap from this project. Then, decide what to DIY, and what to delegate.