Publishing part 4 of 5: Making a living writing, promotion, and self-publishing
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Having discussed at length the process of traditional publishing, we now move on to how you can make a good living with your writing. As I mentioned before, it’s very rare to be a huge success publishing. For every Harry Potter, there are hundreds of thousands of other titles which make little to no money. The truth is, only 5% of American writers make their living exclusively from their writing. The writing life might sound very romantic, but in reality (as most of you may well already know), it’s mostly a lot of hard work. Today, we will, most of all, address money. How to manage it, how to maintain a sustainable lifestyle, but also, how to market your book efficiently, and how to make money from freelancing that is related to writing. I will also address self-publishing, since it is a rapidly expanding sector of the publishing spectrum, and it involves a lot of money, both spent and gained.
Self-publishing used to be frowned upon and regarded as the last resort of someone who wasn’t good enough to make it with the “real” publishers. There were a few success stories, but they were the exception, and generally, it was still looked down upon. Now, things are starting to really change, as authors are realizing more and more that they can make a lot of money, and have a lot of creative control, and a lot of traditionally published authors are abandoning that route to choose self-publishing specifically for those reasons. It’s become very common for people to make a decent amount of money in self-publishing, even though the huge success stories are still pretty rare.
The one thing that has done the most to revolutionize self-publishing is the advent of the ebook. Now, without the huge cost of printing, you can easily publish an ebook for just a few hundred dollars, and you can spend only a little bit more with print-on-demand publishing. There are other options, depending on how much you want to invest, but as of right now, ebooks and POD are the cheapest ones. They also have a lot of advantages, too: with pre-printed books, you need to take care of storing and shipping yourself, while the costs of shipping are calculated in the printer’s cut with POD, and with ebooks, they are only a few pennies.
However, despite the success stories, there are a few downsides to self-publishing. The first one is that if you hold the hope of one day publishing traditionally, you may have a hard time, especially if you use a previously self-published book. A lot of publishers will not consider a previously self-published book, especially if it was not that successful (which is conceivably the reason why you would want a traditional publisher after having self-published). Also, a record of poor sales (under 15,000 copies) with one or several self-published titles might also make an agent or publisher turn you down.
Another downside is that it costs money. Yes, even for an ebook. It’s not just about the paper; if you want your book to succeed, and to be taken seriously, you should take it seriously, too. And that means asking a professional to correct and design it. There are far too many self-published ebooks out there which are just full of spelling, grammar, and syntax mistakes, which would have been easily caught by a copy editor. Yes, you should have beta readers and a critique group, but even writers are not professional copy editors, and you still need to hire one.
As for the cover, unless you’re purchasing a ready-to-use cover, which still costs money, you should hire a professional designer. Unless you yourself are a professional designer, never do it yourself, or ask a friend to do it (unless they are a professional designer, in which case, you should pay them for their work anyway. There is nothing as disrespectful as asking someone to do what they do for a living for free.) If you do it yourself, or ask your friend who took an art class in high school, or who just discovered the layers feature on Photoshop, then your cover will most likely end up on the Lousy Book Covers site, and you will lose many potential buyers who will cringe at the cover. I actually am a professional illustrator, and I still hire someone to do my cover design for me, because I do not keep up to date with the current design trends, and my strength is illustration, not graphic design.
You should also think about getting an ISBN for your book, especially if you are offering it in print. This makes it easier to find and order, as it is unique. In Canada, ISBN numbers are free, but in the US you have to pay for them. There are also good free online barcode generators which are based on your ISBN, as well.
Bottom line: if you have the money, invest it. If you don’t, then save up until you can afford all this. Don’t you owe it to the book you slaved over for weeks, possibly months or even years to make it as professional as you can?
The last downside, which I consider less and less of a downside because more and more traditional publishers are asking their authors to do this anyway, is that you are entirely responsible for the promotion and marketing of your book. When you deal with a traditional publisher, they will help, guide, and support you through this; when you self-publish, however, you are entirely responsible for your own promotion and marketing. This is hard, relentless work, and if you don’t invest yourself enough or don’t do it consistently, your sales will suffer.
The first thing you have to know about promoting your work is that, in public (which includes online, of course) you must, at all times, maintain a professional attitude. Learn to build respectful, courteous relationships with your fan base, and the other people you interact with professionally. Basically, treat others as you would like to be treated.
That being said, you still have to have an idea what to do with your marketing and promotion. If you have done some research about publishing before, you probably have heard of the concept of “platform”. You hear about it and hear about it, but you’re not sure what it means. A platform is a term that describes building hype about your upcoming book, sometimes even before having written it. This applies mostly to people who write non-fiction. It is served to establish yourself as an authority in your field; in fiction, while you still need to have what is called a tribe or a network, the platform starts becoming a more abstract concept. I will discuss it more at length in next week’s post about non-fiction proposals. There are lots of things you can still do, as an author of fiction, to gain a fan base and some hype for your books.
People who have book review blogs and Facebook pages are your very best friends. They read books and post reviews online, and often, they also share promotions and giveaways. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: when you are speaking to these people, treat them with courtesy and respect. They are doing you a great favor, and many do not make any money from what they do; they do it out of a sheer enthusiasm for reading and books in general. If you harass or berate them, you will most likely get blacklisted, and not just on their sites; they speak to each other, and not many people are going to want to deal with you if you’re insufferable.
When you write to them asking them to review your book, be sure to write as professional a letter as you can, and try to hook them exactly as you would when querying an agent or publisher. Also, don’t ask them to go buy your book. Offer them a copy, in print if you have one, if not, in ebook format, and be grateful. Sign it for them, with your thanks. It’s the very least you can do!
Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Goodreads, blogging… It can seem overwhelming to someone who doesn’t know where to start, but really, whether you use one, or all of them, a good online presence boils down to two things: interaction and quality content. It’s more than just a means of repeating “buy my books” endlessly; social media is about opening a dialogue, getting people talking, to you, and between themselves.
About content, you need to give people something they want to have. Don’t promise them tidbits about your current WiP, but give them something unique and brilliant, that displays your writing, if you can. Posting reviews is a good thing to do, such as book reviews, movie reviews, game reviews, etc. You can build from there. But make sure it’s something you have a real expertise with, and something you can write about eloquently; after all, if you are establishing yourself as an author, so it’s the quality of your writing you must display!
A note on Goodreads, and Amazon reviews: one thing I’ve heard of recently, is that you might want to look at reviews of books that are similar to yours, and contact the reviewer to offer them your book, in exchange for a review. Of course, the review they end up writing is to their discretion and taste, but it’s still a good way to generate some reviews!
Giveaways are also a great way to make yourself know, and generate a little hype about your books. You might even gain a few readers, who might make a few more reviews for you. Also, running giveaway contests might make people interested in your book; it’s a good way for them to hear about it in the first place, and if they don’t win, they might end up buying it anyway!
One note, though: if you do run contests through Facebook, be wary of their contest rules. Many, many people do not respect those rules, and Facebook has been known to yank pages for that, and without warning. Don’t risk all your hard work for one contest, follow the rules!
Speaking of contests, they are a very nice way to not only earn visibility for your book, but they are also a good way to make money, as many have cash prizes. There are contests for short stories, novellas, novels, published, unpublished, self-published, and specializing by genres. The Writer’s Market has a very good list of these contests, and even if your novel doesn’t necessarily win, if it makes it to finalist, it will still get a lot of visibility!
As you most decidedly know by now, one of the most important thing to understand about having a writing career is that money is no guarantee. Writing, like any other freelance or independent contractor job, is what we call a “feast or famine” kind of revenue, which means there is no steady, regular stream of income. Even royalties are paid either yearly, biannually, quarterly or monthly at the most. You will get larger amounts, less frequently, not on a regular basis, and you never know when your next payment is coming from, and how big it’s going to be. This basically means that you have to start being very good at managing your money, and learn that just because you have it, does not mean you should spend it. Rather, you need to learn how to stretch it and make it last as long as you possibly can.
First, you absolutely need to establish a budget. You need to know how much you are spending on everything, per month, every month. That way, you will see when your money starts to dwindle, and you will know when you need to do something to make a bit more. You will also see how much the things you are paying for really cost, and it might encourage you to make some changes, and cut back on things you might not necessarily need.
This brings me to my second point: you need to cultivate a lifestyle that is right for a freelance writer. This likely means that you won’t make as much money as you would on most day jobs, and you won’t be able to spend so much. If you are serious about the writing life, then you need to choose writing over luxury. Live in a place that is just large enough for your family, and no more. Don’t own more than one car. Do you need to buy your furniture and clothes new? Thrift stores offer things much cheaper; there is absolutely no shame in shopping there. People won’t be able to tell where it came from! Do you read magazines? Chances are your public library has the titles you read, you can borrow them for free. Are you always home? Then a landline is often much cheaper than a cell phone. Have internet? Online television services such as Netflix or Hulu come out much cheaper than cable. Learn to cook from scratch; you can save a lot on groceries by buying the basic ingredients instead of prepared foods. There is also truly nothing wrong in keeping a day job, part-time or full-time, if you are not ready to make those sacrifices; but if you are serious about writing, and still need to work, it does mean that you will need to accept that you might have to cut back on your social life.
There are, however, things that you really should NOT cut corners on. To succeed in any sort of business, you need to invest a minimal amount, and writing is definitely a business. First of all, you NEED a computer. It doesn’t have to be a big powerful thing that can run the latest game, but you need something that can access the internet and on which you can use a word processor. You need to be able to format and send the documents in the file type the publishers request, you need to be able to interact with your fan base on a regular basis, and you need to have easy access to your email. There are netbooks available that do all that for around 200$.
You also need a printer. You can do most of your editing on the computer, but some of your beta readers will need the printed document to read. Since they are doing you a favor, it is best to print it for them. Some publishers (though they are fewer and fewer) also request that submissions be sent in by snail mail, and you need good paper, and it needs to be printed clearly enough to be easily read. There are some very good, cheap black and white laser printers you can buy; though the replacement cartridges are more expensive than inkjet, you can get a lot more copies, and you will end up paying less per page.
You also need a website. You can function for a while with a free blog such as WordPress offers, but eventually, you need to have your own. That’s not a big expense, though; there are tons of servers which will host you for less than ten dollars a month. However, you might need to hire a webmaster, if you’re not sure how to design a site efficiently. You site needs to be simple, but appealing, and most of all, easy to navigate.
Finally, you need to save some money to attend writer conferences, especially if you’re looking for an agent. You don’t need to attend every one, but they are a great source of inspiration, learning, and they can really help you make the connections you need in today’s world. You will want to look your best when you attend. I’m not saying you have to be the height of fashion, but you need to be at least clean, and dressed professionally.
If you learn to adopt a lifestyle that fits your income, and to not cut corners on the things that really matter, you should do fine with your money.
You can still make a little bit of money on the side by doing some freelance writing. Ghostwriting is a very popular and lucrative outlet; a lot of people are wanting to write memoirs, but have no writing skills, and are actively looking for a ghostwriter. And memoirs are one of the best-selling types of books right now; a lot of publishers are looking for memoirs. As long as they have something unique to say, and your writing is good, it shouldn’t be too hard a sell.
There is also technical writing, which is very in demand, and can be lucrative. Textbooks, instruction manuals, corporate newsletters, pamphlets… you name it, it needs writing, and it pays. There are agencies that specialize in finding that kind of work for writers. Just beware of dealing over the internet; get a contract before you do any work.
This concludes the series about publishing fiction. Next week will be all about publishing non-fiction. Don’t forget; if you have any questions, or requests, feel free to comment or contact me through Facebook!