Far more books are self-published now than traditionally published. Technology has allowed anyone comfortable with Microsoft Word to publish a print-on-demand paperback or eBook.
Writing and publishing are not the same thing. It seems I should not have to write that sentence because it is so obvious, yet few writers appreciate the difference in mindset.
Publishing is a business. Publishers want to sell books. To survive, publishers must sell books at a profit.
What does this mean to the self-published author? It means they have to wear two very different hats. I tell my clients the three most important aspects of their work, from a market point of view, are the book itself, the cover and the blurb. Let’s put our publisher hats on and explore those areas.
The Book Itself
Editing is a problem with self-published books. Too many self-published books have not been edited at all, or have been poorly edited. One type of editor that traditional publishers have that self-publishers desperately need is the acquisition editor. Acquisition editors succeed or fail based on book sales (though acquiring a book that wins an award will buy them some time). Self-published authors need an experienced editor to tell them if their book is marketable, in addition to developmental, copy, and line editing (and don’t forget proofreading).
“You’re known by your success in publishing, so an acquisition editor who finds an unknown author and watches that book rise to the bestseller lists in turn becomes a star in-house (though everybody around will try to take credit for it — another old publishing tradition). That’s how you make senior editor, by having hits. It’s how a senior editor becomes a publisher, by having big hits. You’re known by your hits. You rise by your hits. If you don’t have hits, you’re going to remain in the nameless group of midlist editors forever. And yes, your bonus is tied to your books. So, an editor who has several bestselling books in a year can expect a big bonus.” - Chip MacGregor, Literary Agent
Authors at traditional publishers (small presses seem to be different in this regard) get very little, if any, input into the design of their book covers.
“I have no control. Never have had. Of all the covers on my books over the years, I have liked a few.” – Anne Rice
“The publisher cares if it’s a cover that will sell books. The author usually cares if the cover represents the book.” – Justine Larbalestier
Just like with editors, self-published authors should search for an experienced book cover designer, who has designed covers for books that have sold well, preferably in their genre, and then walk away. Let them do their thing.
I used to visit Caribou Coffee in Glen Ellyn, IL every weekday morning to pick up coffee (and all too often, donuts) before work. I met a lady there who wrote book blurbs under contract to various publishers. It’s all she did. She would get galley proofs from the publishers and write the dust cover copy and/or back cover copy of the book. She likened it to a movie trailer. It is more like advertising copywriting than writing a short story or novel. It’s a different set of skills. I think authors, just like with book covers, write blurbs that represent the book – more like a synopsis – as opposed to copy that sells the book. Find someone that specializes in book blurb writing. If you can’t (and I don’t think it would be easy) perhaps a publicist or someone from the advertising world could do a good job. If you put on your publisher hat, you want every chance you can get for your book to present well in the marketplace.
Once you decide to self-publish, you are no longer just a writer, you’re a publisher – a businessperson. If you are unwilling to adopt that role or unable to pay someone qualified and experienced to do it for you, you will not be successful without an incredible dose of luck. You might be better off buying a lottery ticket!
I’ve heard more than one writer say “I just want to write. I don’t want to deal with any of this.” I don’t blame you. If that’s the case, you should consider shifting your efforts into getting traditionally published and let the pros handle all the business stuff. Sure, there are downsides and it seems to take forever (see this post from Bruce Steinberg for more on that), but lots of people get published every year. Why not you?
A bit on my role in all this: formatting. I think a book must look right; it must fit the conventions of its genre. Anything beyond that – unusual fonts, fancy artwork elements – enriches me, but cuts into the publisher’s profit. Drop caps, fancy art between sections, unusual fonts – they might look pretty, but they cost more and do not sell books. And, if you have your publisher hat on, you don’t want to cut into your profit. Formatting needs to be done right, but it is not as important as the book itself, the cover, or the blurb.
Side Note: As I was putting this online the news about the shooting in Florida came online for me. 17 more kids dead. That makes my post feel so stupid, so irrelevant. People and politicians will offer "thoughts and prayers" as if that solves everything and then do nothing. It gets harder and harder to give a crap - it is starting to seem normal, like just another day. I know that's VoiceOfDoomAndGloomy, but that is the way I feel right now.