Today, please welcome my friend (and critique partner), L.J. Cohen, author of numerous novels and series including the YA Contemporary novel FUTURE TENSE, the SciFi series Halcyone Space: DERELICT and ITHAKA RISING, and the YA Fantasy series Changeling’s Choice: THE BETWEEN and TIME AND TITHE.
L.J. is a talented author, an artist (her pottery is incredible), and a good friend, and she’s here to share some valuable lessons from her side of the writing mountain. So…take it away!
When All the Hats are Yours
(The day to day life of an author-publisher)
I self-published my first novel in January of 2012. THE BETWEEN was a YA fantasy/fae changeling novel that had received heaps of praise in its rejection letters from the large publishers, one even intimating that if my name were Holly Black, they would have published it. But since I was a nobody, and it would have been my debut novel, none of the big houses wanted to risk not making enough from their investment.
So with the blessing of my then agent, I decided to toss it out to the world and see what kind of traction I could get. I think we were both hoping that some decent sales numbers might convince publishers to make an offer an the next book that went out on submission. (Remember, this was in the earlier days of indie publishing, when it wasn’t unheard of for publishers to troll the Amazon best seller lists in search of new talent.)
Unfortunately, it didn’t work like that for me. While THE BETWEEN garnered excellent reviews, it only sold in the hundreds of copies. However, the process of producing the novel, both as a trade paperback and as an eBook taught me an enormous amount about how to be a publisher. And when, several years later, my agent and I parted ways, I had the knowledge and experience to take my publishing to a professional level.
Now, three and a half years later, I have just published my 5th novel. One of my books has sold nearly 10,000 copies and spent much of last summer on the Amazon best seller lists. So am I a breakout success? That entirely depends on what you consider a success.
By the ‘can you support your family on your art’ metric, no. But very few writers can reach that high bar. I measure my success on a very different metric: Have I learned to put out a product that is indistinguishable from what you would find from any small or large publisher? Yes. Do those books sell in the open marketplace? Yes. Do those books get favorably compared to traditionally published books in similar genres? Yes.
The Three Hats of the Author-Publisher
I have broken down the process into three distinct job categories: the writer, the publisher, and the marketer. Some of the tasks under each of these happen simultaneously and the indie entrepreneur needs to be able to switch between them. This can be harder than it looks, as the mindset of each can be quite distinct. If you’ve ever struggled switching between writing mode and editing mode, then you will understand.
The adage ‘you get what you pay for’ is absolutely at play in this process. I’ve starred editing (Writer Hat) and cover art (Publisher Hat) for a reason: these are the two elements that have the highest costs and skimping on either will definitely hurt the outcome and any chances of the book finding success in the marketplace.
Wearing the writer hat
In some ways, this may be the easiest hat to wear if you are an author-publisher. Not because writing a novel is easy, but since most of us come from a writing background, it is the most familiar skill set of the three. Wearing this hat, the writer must:
Complete a manuscript
Get feedback from targeted readers
Complete the revision process
Have the resulting revision edited *
Incorporate edits into a final revision
Editing is a potential big-ticket item in this phase of a project. And one that should not be skimped on. There are different kinds of editors for different parts of the process, including developmental, line, and copyeditors. A developmental editor will look at the 10,000 foot view of a manuscript, often one in progress and help the writer with big picture issues including characterization, plot, and pacing. Not every project or every writer will need developmental editing. A skilled beta reader can often serve in this function, especially if the writer is experienced.
A line editor will take a completed manuscript and look at voice, flow, word choice, repetition, clarity, consistency, clumsy phrasing, etc. This is a heavy focus on the sentence and paragraph level of the work and can be the difference between a good story and a polished one. A skilled line editor may very well be the single largest expense of a novel. Karen Conlin (http://grammargeddon.com/?page_id=56) is my editor of choice here, and depending on the length of the project, her rates (exceedingly reasonable for the excellent work!) for a full length novel can run in the $1500 range.
Copy editing is often used as a synonym for proofreading: in this phase, the edited document is reviewed for errors in spelling, word usage, and punctuation. A skilled line editor will often include this. (As Karen does.)
Wearing the publisher hat
This is when the writer needs to step away, to set aside ego and emotion, and look at the manuscript as a product. Wearing this hat, the publisher needs to figure out how to package the book in a way that it will be appealing to a reading audience. Some of those tasks include:
Obtaining cover art*
Creating a title/series title/tag line
Creating a blurb/elevator pitch
Obtaining cover blurbs from other writers
Making decisions about cover typography
Choosing sales outlets
Formatting the eBook
Formatting for print
While the majority of the work in the Writer phase is done/obtained by the writer, there are tasks in the Publisher phase that the writer-publisher may not have the skill set for. Outsourcing those tasks will enable quality outcomes, but will increase the final budget of the project. However, since time is also a precious resource, the author-publisher needs to make appropriate choices that allow them to manage both time and money.
I’ve found art and artists in a variety of places. Deviant Art is a great source both for art to license and to find artists to commission. I found the art that became the cover for my short story collection, STRANGER WORLDS THAN THESE on Deviant Art. The artist, Veris Maya, is a young woman from Russia who I messaged and purchased the rights to use the drawing for $100. Commissions will be more expensive and can run from the hundreds of dollars to a thousand or more, depending on the artist, the complexity of the piece, if the commission is simply for the art, or for a full cover (eBook and wraparound print, with or without typography), and if the piece is exclusively for a particular project and cannot be sold again.
The artist, Jules Valera, who created covers for THE BETWEEN and TIME AND TITHE is a student at art school in Scotland. The artist, Chris Howard, who created the covers for DERELICT and ITHAKA RISING is a writer/artist I became friendly with in a workshop we took together.
I highly recommend that at least a simple agreement be written that both parties accept with the price, time table, and feedback process included.
This stands for International Standard Book Number and in the US, the business that manages and sells these is Bowker. While many of the sales outlets will allow books to be published without their own ISBNs (Amazon does not require them, Smashwords and Create Space will assign them upon request), the author-publisher may wish to have their own block of numbers as a way to enhance the professional appearance of their business.
At the start of my own publisher’s journey, I created Interrobang Books as my imprint name and through that name, own a block of ISBNs.
The ISBN is typically used to identify distinct editions of a book for ordering and inventory purposes for libraries and bookstores. While Bowker recommends a distinct ISBN for each eBook version (eg, mobi, epub), there may be no practical reason to do so, since there is only one vendor that sells mobi (Amazon) and no potential confusion for customers when purchasing eBooks. However, print and eBook versions require different ISBNs.
The author-publisher must make one major decision. To go exclusive to Amazon (and thus have access to several marketing choices, such as free days, countdown deals, and lending through Kindle Unlimited subscription service), or to have eBooks sold in all potential venues, including Google Books, iBooks, B&N, and Kobo, for example.
This is both a financial choice and a philosophical one. Currently, Amazon is the largest market for eBooks, by far. However, that might not always be the case, and I have chosen to keep my books distributed widely because of concerns that monopolies are not good for writers.
While creating a solid eBook that will be displayed correctly in all eReaders and eReader software platforms can be a challenge, it is not an impossible task. It requires a little bit of knowledge of HTML and understanding cascading style sheets. There are hordes of references available for creating eBooks, as well as several kinds of software that help automate the process.
Since I’m a bit of a geek, I enjoy the process of creating mine from scratch, using SIGIL an epub editor with a WYSIWYG view as well as a code view. Once the epub is created, it’s a simple matter to run it through the Kindle Previewer to create the mobi file. (http://www.amazon.com/gp/feature.html?docId=1000765261)
Print formatting can be more challenging than eBook formatting. A good place to start is the downloadable word templates available through Create Space. Some additional resources:
Wearing the Marketer Hat:
Setting the price
Selecting the genre (for sales venues)
Locating and soliciting reviews/blogs (NetGalley)
Running giveaways (Goodreads)
Finding local venues – schools, libraries, bookstores
Finding venues friendly to indies (booklife)
If I’m being honest, I find this the most challenge aspect of publishing. This is where the author-publisher needs to step out of their comfort zone and become a salesforce. This is where the product becomes a tangible item for purchase.
The job of a marketer takes an enormous amount of legwork and research. And that takes time. Ideally, by this phase of the project, the author-publisher has already been established on a variety of social networks as an authentic individual and solid information source. This can include blogging, twitter, google plus, facebook, tumblr, ello, for example. It can be exhausting to try to be a strong presence on all networks and the author-publisher should chose the one(s) that feel most consistent with mission, genre, and audience. The key here is authenticity. Social networking is not a primary sales tool, but it can open doors to readers and influencers.
And social media numbers do not translate into fans. For example, nearly 8,000 people have me in their circles on G+. I regularly interact with several hundred individuals there. But that doesn’t mean I can count on even those few hundred to buy my books. Some will. Others will boost the signal when I have something new in the marketplace.
As in other parts of the process, the author-publisher can outsource some of the marketing tasks, but those services can be quite expensive and it’s hard to quantify return on investment in terms of sales. Some other marketing ideas include joining appropriate organizations. (For example, I am a member of SFWA and Broad Universe, as well as part of an indie writer’s collective “The Scriptors.” Having additional outlets to get one’s name out helps, as well as opens the door to other opportunities that a sole entrepreneur might not have access to, including conventions, access to NetGalley, and exposure to other writers’ fans and readers.
One vital caveat: if all the author-publisher contributes to the online space is ‘buy my book’, the product will be seen as spam, and the ‘brand’ will acquire a negative image. And I shouldn’t have to mention this, but I will anyway: steer clear of arguing with reviewers. It never ends well and will absolutely lose you readership – and far more quickly/more permanently than a few negative reviews will.
As in all parts of the process, balance is crucial. Ultimately, if all the other tasks of the author-publisher get in the way of the actual writing, then there will be nothing to produce, so keep a firm grip on time management.
If this sounds exhausting, it is. But it is also exhilarating and allows for a degree of creative control that doesn’t typically exist in traditional publishing. Ultimately, to be an author-publisher requires the mindset of an entrepreneur and the ability to accept both the risks and the rewards of the process.
And another brutal truth: all your hard work may not translate into financial or critical success. As in all creative endeavors, being a successful author-publisher requires a great deal of luck and timing. My experience since the publication of my first novel in 2012 has been overwhelmingly positive and yes, I would consider my work a success.
LJ Cohen is the writing persona of Lisa Janice Cohen, poet, novelist, blogger, ceramics artist, local food enthusiast, Doctor Who fan, and relentless optimist. Lisa lives just outside of Boston with her family, two dogs (only one of which actually ever listens to her) and the occasional international student. When not doing battle with a stubborn Jack Russell Terrier mix, Lisa can be found working on the next novel, which often looks a lot like daydreaming.
Her published work includes:
FUTURE TENSE (YA/Contemporary Fantasy)
PEN-ULTIMATE: A Speculative Fiction Anthology, LJ Cohen & Talib Hussain, eds, is available in print and eBook editions (proceeds donated to the SFWA Emergency Medical Fund)
You can reach LJ: http://www.ljcohen.net, email@example.com