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October 2, 2015

How to Publish—My (Less than Helpful) Experiences

by Chris

books on shelf

Those of us who find ourselves writing books in the twenty-first century have truly never had it better … or worse.

Not only has the novel not died out (long-predicted since the birth of film and television), but the written medium has undergone (and is still undergoing) a genuine renaissance of distribution and consumption. Similar to the advent of the paperback, digital production has opened the doors to publication for many who would otherwise have languished in in the dark shadows of the unknown. Yet in a world where people fill their Kindles with $0.99 fan fiction alongside $19.99 best-sellers, it’s become increasingly difficult for writers to reach their audiences, and for audiences to discover new authors. (I’m interested to see how many parenthetical phrases I can insert in this article.)

Last month I wrote about the difficulties of marketing your book, and getting people interested in reading it. It’s hard enough when your story is something utterly original (hard to do, these days), and all the more difficult when it’s derivative Rowling or Tolkien (like my own work). But before you can look to market your material, you still need to publish it. This is one step that, thankfully, has only become easier over the years—though not always to everyone’s benefit.

My dream—as is the dream, still, for many writers—is (or at least, was) to be traditionally published. I wanted to see my book on the shelves of Barnes & Noble, with a professionally-designed cover, number one in the new releases category (maybe in the fantasy section). I wanted it to be reviewed in the New York Times, and have a quote from Stephen King on the cover about how great a story it is. I was deathly afraid, however—of rejection, of waiting, of never being recognized.

I was impatient, too—I didn’t want to wait years for my book to be published. I’d written it, and I wanted it out now. So came the temptation of self-publication. I did my research (so I thought), and came to a number of conclusions. One of these was that, no matter what, I needed to be able to hold a physical copy of my book. Digital wasn’t enough—I needed it in print. I also knew that I wanted the book edited professionally. I liked what I’d written, but I didn’t trust myself (you should never trust yourself to edit your work, incidentally).

This led me to the interesting (and often reviled) middle-ground of the indie publishing company (otherwise known as vanity publishing). I knew I could have done just about everything through Amazon and CreateSpace, but I was drawn in by the attractiveness of industry-standard publication methods, without having to fight the actual publication industry. There are a number of these companies out there, most of which fall under the global umbrella of Penguin and Random House. I went with one called iUniverse.

One of the things iUniverse was very upfront about with me was the fact that publishing through them in no way guaranteed success. I’d be putting a lot of cash upfront, with no guarantee of return. I thought I understood this, although I recognize now that I still had rather unrealistic expectations of what success actually looked like. Ultimately, the experience taught me a lot, and consequently my next book is coming out through CreateSpace and Amazon, done entirely on my own.

Do I regret publishing through iUniverse? Not strictly. Although I’ve decided not to use them again, my investment bought me a number of things. One of these was an industry-grade editorial review. Short of an actual edit, this provided me an insight into what my story had to offer in a heavily-saturated market, and how to tweak the story to better suit my audience. I liked this: it gave me a taste of what traditional publishing would do to my story, without forcing me to make changes I wasn’t comfortable with. This isn’t something you’re likely to get through friends and family.

cover History of Erath
Having industry professionals review and critique my work also gave me a huge boost in confidence. As silly as it sounds, receiving an editor’s choice award from iUniverse made me feel that my book might actually stand a chance. It allowed me to believe in my work, and to keep going (I have six more books to release in the series). Ultimately, I think I could have released the book myself, and in terms of sales, fared absolutely no worse (I’ve sold less than fifty copies in a year). But working with the people at iUniverse did at least help me feel like I was on the right track.

I’ll be more directly self-publishing going forward. A companion novel, History of Erâth, comes out in a few days, and it’s my first foray into publishing through CreateSpace. If all goes well, the second book of the Redemption of Erâth series, Exile, will be out in December, similarly published through CreateSpace. With (hopefully) a new drive on marketing, I’ll rack up another handful of sales for these new stories—and I’ll have done it on my own.

What are your thoughts? Should the dream still be traditional publishing, or can self-publishing lead to equal success?

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  1. Thank you for saying that you should never trust yourself to edit your own work!!!! I wish there was a warning on every self-pubbed book as to whether it had been professionally edited or not. It would change my buying habits. Thanks for sharing your experience. I self-pubbed and also used Amazon/Createspace and did not use a professional editor, but I wish I had. I now know, because I also have a publisher, that it is a very bad idea to publish unedited work. I won't do it again. My sales are dismal, but I suck at marketing. Best of luck with your books.

    1. Thank you, Barbara! You're absolutely right—self-editing will only get you so far (primarily because after the 103rd read-through, the words stop meaning anything), and while self-publishing helps to keep costs down, you should always try and budget for at least one professional edit. It only serves to make your story stronger. And don't worry—no one's buying my books either!