How to get ahead in self-publishing: never stop dreaming
Editor Fiona Ashe on how to give your book an edge over others in a crowded marketplace
Eamonn Ashe with his book, edited and published by his daughter Fiona
We all have dreams. For many, writing a book and seeing it on the shelves of bookshops is a dream come true. The next best thing to fulfilling your own dream is to help someone else to fulfil theirs. Such was my opportunity when my father wrote his dream book.
31 Years Of Hell! 1914-1945 (www.31YearsOfHell.com) is a concise history of the two world wars and the interwar years. I undertook to edit and produce the book, then I self-published it. The process was very intensive and the lessons I learned should help indie authors to maximise potential distribution and revenue.
Long before your book goes to print, it’s important to think about how to attract readers’ attention and generate sales. Key factors include professional editing, design, print styles, publicity strategy and understanding readers’ habits.
We’ve all studied English grammar in school, right? So why would you need an
editor? If you misplace an apostrophe or insert a comma splice, will the grammar police come after you, lock you up and sentence you to two weeks in punctuation prison? Maybe not, but while your freedom is not at stake, your book’s distribution options are. Most of the book buyers I approached were very welcoming. However, some were a bit cagey when they heard the phrase “self-published”. They told me that many self-published books offered to them are not well produced and contain spelling and grammatical errors. A great editor won’t just weed out typos, misspellings and punctuation errors; they will elevate your writing and “make it sing”.
The relationship between the writer and editor hinges on constructive communication. We have a saying in the film industry (my other creative pursuit) that writers must “murder your darlings”. It’s completely reasonable to be emotionally attached to your favourite paragraph in which you injected clever humour, shared a personal anecdote and created a slick metaphor. But if it doesn’t serve the story, it has to be consigned to the literary cutting room floor. Your editor is your book’s bouncer.
You might be surprised at the length of time between finishing the writing and the book going to print. Editing a non-fiction book can involve challenges beyond punctuation and polishing, such as fact-checking and sourcing images.
Once your text is punctuation-perfect, it’s time to choose the style for the interior pages of your book. With my background as a content creator, I had the capability to design the interior of my father’s book myself. However, if this is not within your skill set, I recommend hiring a professional designer. In addition to adding necessary text elements such as page headings, dedication page, table of contents and acknowledgements page, a talented designer will add flourishes to separating sections of text, choose appropriate fonts and create eye-catching page layouts.
One thing to consider when designing the interior pages of your book is whether you understand your target market’s reading habits. Do they binge-read the way people binge-watch TV drama on Netflix? Or do they dip in and out of books periodically? Since there is a huge amount of content in my father’s world war book – it covers 31 years – and because the wars involved complex detail, we concluded that readers would dip in and out of it. This has been borne out in feedback we’ve received since the book went on sale. In order to facilitate this episodic reading behaviour, we chose to break up the text with subheadings and add timelines at the end of each chapter. We also illustrated the book with maps and emotionally evocative photographs to enhance the storytelling.
The next, and arguably most important, factor in dressing your book for success is the book cover. There are software packages available to help you design it yourself, but since I have no experience of them, I cannot offer advice on whether they are a good choice. From the outset, we decided to have our cover professionally designed. Drogheda artist Olive Eustace painted two world war photographs in meticulous detail: one for the front cover and one for the back. Graphic designer Caoimhe Mulroy (www.OnceUponDesign.ie) combined these paintings with a gun smoke effect to create a striking book cover. RTÉ’s Joe Duffy described 31 Years of Hell! 1914-1945 as “beautifully produced”.
A professional designer can make your book cover “pop”. In today’s overcrowded marketplace, it’s critical that your cover stands out. It’s important to understand the financial pressures on bookstores. Two independent bookshops which stocked our book, and a third that we planned to approach, have closed down since we published in December. So shop owners are very selective about what books they take on. Even if your book does get stocked, it’s very difficult to get it included on the tables of featured books. On the bookshelves, it might be face out but if it isn’t, all that consumers will see is the spine of the book. Your best chance to get it stocked and featured is to combine an eye-catching cover with an aesthetically-pleasing interior, since book buyers and distributors will recognise your professionalism.
I also found it very beneficial having a professional book cover designer who could talk directly to the printer about the technicalities of bleed, spine width and colour nuance. This will be relevant if you choose the traditional route of printing hard copies and distributing them through bookshops, as my father and I did. So how do you find the most appropriate printing company for you? Our book contains world war maps which needed to be printed on photographic paper, but most printers collate photographic pages in one section of a book. Our readers are best served if the maps appear in the book next to the content to which they relate, so they needed to be spread throughout the book rather than collated in one section. Fortunately SprintPrint (www.sprintprint.ie) had the capability to insert individual photographic pages where we requested them. I recommend that you get quotes from a range of printing companies for 100, 500 and 1,000 copies since prices vary widely. Ask about specialist needs such as the one I’ve outlined, whether they provide a proof and when your print run will be delivered. If you are self-publishing and would prefer not to incur printing costs up front, you could choose print-on-demand (POD), whereby individual copies of a book are printed to order, or else publish an eBook first and measure how sales go before investing in printing hard copies.
Before you send your book to print, it will need an International Standard Book Number or ISBN, which will be included on the back cover design. You can buy one – or a block of them since you will need separate ones for printed books and eBooks – at Nielsen’s ISBN Store (https://www.nielsenisbnstore.com). If you are self-publishing, you will need to register as a publisher with Nielsen Title Editor (http://www.nielsentitleeditor.com/titleeditor) in order to input information about your book: this will then be accessible to wholesalers, distributors, bookshops, libraries and Amazon.
When the book is written, the design complete and copies ordered, no doubt you’ll feel you’ve earned a relaxing holiday lounging by the pool, sipping cocktails. But the hard work of promoting the book is just starting. You need to don your hustler hat and get the word out: writing press releases, giving talks to book clubs, getting coverage on blogs, doing radio interviews and marketing through social media. Working as a journalist for more than 10 years taught me the importance of writing a press release which grabs the attention of a busy duty editor in a newsroom. If you don’t make the value and relevance clear straightaway, they’ll hit “delete”.
In order to get your book into bookshops, you need to submit to Easons, Argosy (which supplies most of the independent bookshops) and Dubray. The era of self-publishing has led to a huge increase in the number of submissions they receive, so it’s very competitive. Alternatively you can approach independent bookshops directly. When doing this, I emailed an “advance information” document first then followed up with a phone call saying my father would call in to show them his book. This strategy worked: the response was overwhelmingly positive. I also supplied “sale or return” invoices on headed paper, which was described by many book buyers as “very professional”. Sale or return is the standard arrangement: bookshops will stock your book but will only pay the percentage agreed on stock sold; unsold books are returned. The percentage that bookshops take varies from 33 to 45 per cent. Because of this, it’s more lucrative to sell from your own website or directly through personal contact, for example after giving a talk, so it’s worth putting effort into those avenues.
Depending on the content of your book, the big prize might be cracking the international market. You can list your book on Amazon. In the UK, you can submit to Gardners, a leading book wholesale distributor which supplies more than 15,000 retailers, including Waterstones. In the US, IngramSpark provides an international print-on-demand service to tens of thousands of retailers, including Barnes and Noble.
One final tip: ask for advice. I received lots of generous advice from authors, publishers and printers. There’s an abundance of blogs and websites which provide helpful information, most notably writing.ie. I also find the Self Publishing and Book Marketing Facebook group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/selfpublishingandbookmarketing/) invaluable.
So, while it’s a long, hard slog, there’s nothing more gratifying than your creative work coming to fruition. Go forth and write, publish and never stop dreaming!
Fiona Ashe is the editor of 31 Years of Hell! 1914-1945 by Eamonn Ashe (ISBN 978-0-9956542-0-4) which she published through her digital agency FlasheForward Communications (www.flasheforward.ie). It’s available in bookshops nationwide (list on website) and can be purchased at www.31YearsOfHell.com