How To Self-Publish So It Benefits Readers?

Yes, yes, fine, we know that self-publishing benefits the author.

It gives writers greater control and a greater financial stake in each sale and it forms a direct relationship between between said writer and that writer’s readers.

Yay! Huzzah! Let’s all dance around the tetherball pole and give each other playful buttock slaps.

*slap*

*slap*

*ooh!*

*slap*

It’s just — wait a minute.

Hold up, hold up, hold up.

*slap*

I SAID HOLD UP, JIMMY.

Goddamnit, Jimmy. Thank you. Sheesh.

We’ve thought about the one side of that equation — the writer — but nobody seems to be talking about the other half of that. Nobody’s talking about how self-publishing benefits readers.

The reason?

It doesn’t. Not yet, and not directly.

If anybody’s left out in the cold when authors self-publish it’s readers. Yes, they reap some benefit — if they’ve an author they love then it’s all the better to have that author not bound up in a situation where it takes him 15 months from the completion of a novel to the publication of that novel. It also ensures that the reader’s money is going in greater steaming lumps to that author. So, in this way, fans are rewarded.

But regular readers? Not so much.

Now, some of this falls to Amazon and B&N, admittedly — curation and filter of indie books (and, in fact, all books) is awful. Sorting through books on those sites is about as much fun as sorting through a jar of marmot pellets looking for that one good Junior Mint. That doesn’t mean, however, that self-published authors can’t take some responsibility for the work they’re putting out in the world.

Let’s just say it now and say it proud, trumpeting it so loudly that You All The Way In The Back can hear: this should be the year that self-publishers take responsibility. For themselves and their work as well as the larger body of DIY work existing out there in the world. Let this be the year that indie writers step into Thunderdome armed to the teeth with all the best weapons and armor. (Instead of, say, a mop handle “sword” and a flak jacket made from Schlitz cans.) Let this be the year that you do the work and take the time to get your books up to speed so that self-published books become indistinguishable from any other book on the shelf. Because, let’s be honest: 8 times out of 10 you can spot a self-published book a mile away.

Let this be the year that self-publishing serves readers as much as it serves writers.

How can it serve readers?

Here’s a few ways (and use the comments to add your own):

Treat Readers Like Customers And Clients

One thing that traditional publishing offers authors is a thing most don’t realize: a buffer. Formatting error? Not the author’s fault! Weird marketing? Not the author’s fault! Ugly cover? Not the author’s fault!

To a publisher, a reader is a customer. To a writer, the reader represents audience.

Ah, but in this situation, the writer hath become a publisher, like some kind of literary Transformer (cue crunchy transforming noise), which means the buffer is gone and the excuses are cast to the wind like so much dried semen flower pollen.

Writers will self-publish best when they embrace the mind-set that readers are no longer just readers: they are a customer and client base. You’re not freelancing for a magazine, now: you’re freelancing for the greater body of readership, and that means trying to please and appease however you — and they — see fit.

Put Together A Good-Looking Book

I’ll totally admit that self-publishing has come really far. Doesn’t change the fact that a surprising number of self-published books still maintain as much aesthetic value as me rolling around in hot garbage and then splatting my pale, waste-besmirched body on an empty canvas. Also doesn’t change the fact that many are deeply riddled with errors — not a couple here and there born of formatting problems but errors born of writers who wouldn’t know what they were doing if you broke their noses with a copy of Strunk & White.

(And stop redirecting. If any of you are about to type into the comment box, “But traditionally-published books have errors too!” then I will tie you down and give you an Angry Crayfish enema. That’s not an excuse. Getting into a slapfight on the playground doesn’t become magically okay because those kids got into a slapfight, too. One crime does not make equivalent crimes suddenly acceptable.)

Get a cover that doesn’t look like a warty dick. Find a strong editor. Train yourself to be a better writer after every book — grow, excel, learn your fucking trade you fucking animals.

Ooh, sorry. I think I was snapping into Alec Baldwin mode, there.

Point is: put together a good-looking book.

And part of that means: write well.

Quality Over Quantity

In DIY-indie-micro-self-publishing, quantity serves the writer. The more work you shotgun blast into the world, the more work you have to sell (and further, the more legitimate your work appears — “There’s so much of it!”). Readers, though, are often treated to a bunch of half-baked half-ass material.

Stop giving them the half-ass. Give them the full ass. The total booty. The complete rumpage.

Take the time to earn their trust by offering works of maximum quality.

Stop treating self-publishing work like it’ll have to be “good enough.” Be the best, by gum, by golly.

CUE KARATE KID MONTAGE.

Best Practices, Motherfucker

Most industries have an unspoken (or, sometimes, totally spoken) list of best practices. Meaning, the ways for those industries to be jacked up to Maximum Awesome. When I worked at the library, I did marketing and one of the programs I helped put together was a best practices for libraries to serve an aging population. The list wasn’t all, “Make sure old people have their own water fountains because they smell like rose hips and pee,” or, “Ensure the library has a handicap ramp; oh, it doesn’t have to be near a door or anything, you can put it on the roof for all I care, we just need to have one somewhere so we don’t get yelled at.”

They don’t call it a Bare Minimum list. It’s a list of Best Practices.

So much of self-publishing seems devoted toward bare minimum.

So, for your audience, put together a list of your own personal best practices.

Targeted Cheerleading

Stop rewarding bad behavior. When the dog pees on the carpet, the dog is duct-taped to the couch and forced to watch  a VHS tape of his many indiscretions with this latest urinary mistake added to the pile. The dog is not given a ham bone and happy good-boy ear-scratches.

Cheerlead — by which I mean, recommend heartily — those self-published books that meet not just the minimum standards of quality but that exceed them. And those books that don’t? Fuck ’em. I’m not saying you have to go full court press and ridicule them in the town square, but stop high-fiving them just because they’re self-published. Which leads me to…

Leave The Tribe

You’re not a tribe. Self-publishers are not “together.” But a lot of them act like it — “An attack on one is an attack on all!” — and that’s not only insane, but bad for readers.

Here’s the thing, and this isn’t meant to be a jab at unions, but when “indie” writers act like they’re banded together, it runs the risk of feeding on all the worst inclinations of a union. They all serve one another as customers and recommend each other endlessly and, most problematically, issues and concerns are hand-waved away by the tribe. Instead of embracing a body of people Doing It Wrong, we should be examining those who are Doing It Right.

Put more crassly, readers aren’t served by the self-publishing circle jerk.

All they get for their efforts is a bad case of spooge-eye.

If you want to come together, do so to be the best, not the worst.

Feel free to re-queue that Karate Kid music video.

Take Risks In Storytelling

Traditional publishing has become more risk averse over the years (though to suggest they take no risks at all is a suggestion born from a person who never takes a trip to the bookstore) — it’s why you see a lot of the same thing on shelves. It’s why the same cover is rehashed again and again. Same tropes, same genres, same narrative copy-pasta.

One could argue that this is just fine for readers — it’s what they want, it’s what they buy, and publishers are just bolstering the trends. I’d argue the opposite: setting trends and taking risks is what really rewards the audience. The rise of Stephen King was not because horror was really popular before he came around. Horror was a non-starter prior to King. King popularized that genre and helped to make it huge. He wasn’t chasing trends — he was the trend.

Problem is, self-publishers end up doing More Of The Same. Look at a lot of self-published work and it feels alarmingly similar to what’s already out there. So much of it can be described as a rip-off of something else.

Time to step up, self-pubbers.

Time to start taking risks. Time to stop following in the well-worn paths and carve out your own.

That will ultimately serve readers.

Take Risks In Format

Format needs risks, too. Traditional publishing is in love with the novel. The bigger novel, the better. Certain formats were non-starters: novellas, short stories, poetry, etc. Risky formats were not rewarded. Hell, they never even made it to shelf half the time — wasn’t worth the printing. E-readers have changed that (and, I’ll add here: e-books were a risk in format and see how that paid off?).

Explore different formats. Readers are a diverse bunch and can be served by various experiences — it’s time to stop serving them standard continental cuisine. Time to introduce some new flavors.

That might even mean storytelling experiences that leave the book.

(I’ll talk more about transmedia and self-publishing later.)

Go forth. Experiment.

Sell Directly

Not ever reader has the same e-reader, and not every reader wants to buy from Megabeasts like Amazon or B&N. Sell your book directly. It provides a fresh option for the audience in terms of procurement.

This is one that actually also serves the author. You hear a lot of “OMG YOU GOTTA PUB WITH AMAZON BECAUSE 70% ROYALTY OMG,” but you don’t hear a lot of, “OMG YOU SHOULD SELL DIRECTLY BECAUSE 80-90% ROYALTY OMG.” But that’s the reality. To give perspective, of all my self-published book sales last year, about 5-6% was with B&N. But almost 30% of my sales came direct from this blog.

Pay attention. Offer direct. Readers want it, and it pays for you, too.

That’s called a “win-win” situation.

Discover What Traditional Publishing Is Not Offering

This goes back in part to the “risk” discussion but, for me, deserves its own special corner of this here bloggerel. What is it that traditional publishing isn’t offering? No, no, not to the writer. We know that already. What aren’t they offering to readers? Where is there a deficit, a void, a secret and totally vulnerable thermal exhaust port into which an author-slash-publisher could in theory launch a proton torpedo?

Discover that, and you’ll know in part how to serve readers above serving yourself.

Your Turn

How can self-publishing serve both writers and readers?

Sound off, you crazy little wordomancers, you.

59 comments

  • A post at Ebook Friendly today (http://ebookfriendly.com/2012/01/14/top-self-published-kindle-ebooks-of-2011-report/) collects some helpful data about the success of self-published ebooks in 2011, and it’s great to see this kind of data getting collected and reported.

    According to the report, 18 self-published titles made it into the Top 100 for 2011, which is a huge increase from 2010 (where there were none). This kind of data is encouraging and makes the cheerleaders get very excited. And that’s great … there’s much to celebrate there.

    However, this same data reinforces the warnings raised in this post. If we assume the number of self-published books in 2011 is at least the same as in 2010 (and it’s probably higher than the 2.8 million published in that year), then the percentage of all self-published books that made it into that Top 100 is about 0.000006%. The percentage for traditionally-published works (about 318,000 in 2010) is about 2.6%. That means a traditionally-published work is still about 400,000 times more likely to make it into the top 100 than a self-published book. [Math was never my strong suit … please verify/correct.]

    That doesn’t mean people shouldn’t self-publish, and there’s all sorts of factors in play on both sides of that. But those numbers still exist, and they should be sobering for writers, and they should be pointed out alongside all the encouraging numbers and the cheerleading.

    And they should definitely underscore the main point of this post: self-publishers should take all necessary care to serve the readers responsibly, because the readers have a lot more to choose from and the same limited amount of time to spend.

  • Wow what a breath of fresh air. Everywhere I read, including on my blog…ha…there is a lot of discussion on self publishing vs. traditional publishing and it is always about how it will benefit the author. After reading your post I am more informed on how it benefits the reader, especially the part about offering something that is of high quality. I find a lot of self-published authors are more interested in pushing out as much content as possible as quickly as possible to maximize profits without thinking about quality. Thanks for the fresh perspective.

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