25 Steps To Becoming A Self-Published Author

Coupla weeks back, Delilah S. Dawson swung by on her mighty unicorn to lay her scrolls of wisdom at our door — she left us with 25 Steps To Being A Traditionally Published Author, and so here I thought I’d respond with the self-published analog.

I have no unicorn, however.

I do have a highly caffeinated leprechaun who rides my skull like a hat and who clubs me about the head and neck with his knobby shillelagh. That is not a euphemism.

Just ignore him.

Let us begin.

1. Notice This List Has More Than Two Steps

If you thought the two steps of this process were STEP ONE: WRITE A BOOK, STEP TWO: CLICK “PUBLISH” ON THAT SUMBITCH, you need some deep brain rearranging. If you’re going to do this, you need to take this seriously, and not just upload every barf-bag with your name on it to the Internet at large. Some of these steps are practical. Some of them are about your mindset. These steps are not universal nor are they meant to constitute an exhaustive list. But this process should never include just two little steps.

2. Adjust Your Mindset, Part I: Lose The Term

Being self-published in this day and age is no longer the albatross around your neck it regrettably was — once, if you told people you were self-published, they’d look at you like you were a smelly old jobless hobo just come off a dusty boxcar with soupcan shoes and a hat made from a coyote skull. Though sometimes even still you get that look, as if the person listening is thinking, oh, you’re one of THOSE. Here’s a radical notion, then: get shut of the term “self-published.” Forget “indie.” Forget “DIY.” Just be an author when you’re being an author. Just be a publisher when you’re being a publisher. (Or, go with a term I quite like, “author-publisher.”) People ask you what you do, you write books. People ask who you’re published with, give them the name of your one-man publishing company. Or say, “I did that shit myself,” and if they look at you funny, pee on their shoes and smash gum in their hair. This isn’t because of shame over the term. It’s because the term is increasingly meaningless. Anybody who asks is probably inside publishing somehow anyway, because most readers just plain don’t care who publishes someone, whether it’s you, a Random Penguin, or some magic coyote hobo.

3. Adjust Your Mindset, Part II: You’re The Publisher, Now

You’re not just an author. You’re not just a “self”-publisher. You’re a publisher from bottom to top, from feet to forehead, from asshole to eyebrows. Being a publisher means being a business. A small business of one. I’m not saying to go get an MBA, but you need to start thinking at least a little bit what it means to go beyond being a writer to become a micro-publisher. Start wrapping your head around marketing and advertising, distribution, budgets, taxes, and so forth. A traditional publisher ideally brings things to the table to help the author’s book succeed; how are you going to help your own book succeed? You’re the publisher. The responsibility is yours. But so is the fancy chair. You did go buy a fancy chair, right? No? Rookie.

4. Adjust Your Mindset, Part III: Bitterness Does Not Become You

If part of your publishing plan includes, “Go find a forum on the Internet to bitch about traditional publishing,” you’ve already fucked up. And you’ve already outed yourself as an amateur hour bush league asshole who isn’t publishing his own work because it’s the right choice but is doing it instead because you’re pissy about perceived oppression (blah blah rejection, blah blah gatekeepers). Be a fountain, not a drain. Other authors have made a different choice and that does not make them wrong. It does not make them better or worse. Their choices do not invalidate yours. This is not a contest over who got it right or whose bitterness is the strongest. This is about doing what’s right for you and your story.

5. Write Your Story However You Write Stories, You Crazy Diamond

Writing a book is easy. Writing a good book is hard. It’s like shitting out a typewriter — either whole or one mechanical part at a timeGiving this epic adventure a single item on this list of twenty-five seems like short shrift, but every week I talk about writing and storytelling so hopefully you have a rather oceanic-sized back catalog of posts in which to snorkel. I will say this: for now, it’s important to think a lot more about the story than it is about the publishing. The one will feed into the other, and the choices you make now will matter for publishing later, but at this point, it’s about the book. The best goddamn book you can write beats out any bullshit brand or pompous platform any day of the week. So: write like your heart is on fire. (Oh, and don’t forget the most important part: finish your shit. An abandoned story at page one or page 356 has the same utility as a story you never wrote in the first place.)

6. Consider Taking Risks

Here, perhaps, is some bad business advice and some good creative advice. Self-publishing right now looks a lot like traditional publishing. We see the same types of books, genres, stories, characters. It feels often as if self-publishing is just trailing after traditional, repurposing the waste or mirroring the successes. One of the limitations of traditional is that it just plain can’t do some things. Traditional is a big rock. A big rock can’t move. A big rock cannot dance. But that means you are afforded a chance to put riskier material into the world. Unusual genre mixes. Formats that trad won’t touch. Why play it safe? Whatever you may think of Hugh Howey, the guy really said fuck it and did what no traditional publisher would: he wrote a serious of sci-fi novellas that felt fresh and original. That’s a risk for traditional, but it’s a viable option for you. Write big or go home. And if you do go home, take a sad bubble bath alone while listening to old John Tesh albums, you safe, milquetoasty, wilting little daffodil.

7. Titular

HEE HEE HEE TITULAR sorry I know I possess the sense of humor of an already-immature 12-year-old boy. SHUT UP. Ahem. You need a title. This title needs to not be completely horrible. In traditional publishing, if you title your book with a crapgasmic title, someone in marketing will probably change it. (Or, dirty secret, one of the buyers at Barnes & Noble might change it if they decide they don’t like it.) And here’s where again you need to think like a publisher as well as a writer — the title ideally satisfies your creative and artistic needs, but also works as a great title that attracts those people that will keep you fed, clothed, and liquored: AKA readers.

8. Boomcake

As Delilah points out, your most important job upon finishing your work is to fire the cupcake cannons. Writing a book, even the first draft, is a miraculous act extracted from the seas and from the stars and from all the mouths of all the gods  and no matter what your publishing path is you should be so proud that your glow can be seen from space. Celebrate in whatever way you find most appropriate. Cake. Pie. Churros. Vodka. Roller coaster. New pony. Consensual sex with a darling freak whose freakishness is equal to yours. Hunt, kill and eat one of your critics after performing the chimpanzee battle dance. Point is: TREAT. YO. SELF.

9. Now Purify It In Fire

Walk away as if you’re in a movie and the thing behind you is exploding but you just don’t care. You don’t flinch. You don’t look back. You just walk away. Relax, you’re going to come back. You need that exodus. You need exile, egress, exuent, and other nifty ‘e’ words. You need enough time away from your manuscript so that, when you return, you can imagine that some other asshole wrote it. It gives you a clarifying critical eye and you’ll need that because then it’s time to play a game: read it and rewrite till it’s right. Or at least right enough to let another human look at it. Eschew perfection. Perfection is a meaningless and impossible ideal. It’s a bullseye the size of a fly’s eye. Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

10. Hire Your Own Personal Editorial Han Solo

Walk into the dusty tavern at the far end of the hive of scum and villainy that is The Internet, and hire yourself a quick-shooting fast-flying snark-tongued editorial mercenary. You need an editor. Repeat: you need an editor. If you feel yourself twisting up and saying, I donot need an editerI can edit this myself thnak you verry much, I’ll casually note your typos and misspellings and then jab you hard in your trachea — like, some fucked up Jet Li shit where suddenly you’re gasping and can’t get a breath and also you poop your pants. You need an editor. Self-publishing is a terrible name for what this is because you really shouldn’t be doing it alone. Hire an editor. Hire an editor. (Oh, and if they want to be credited, you better damn sure credit them in the book. Along with anybody else who helped birth this book-baby into the world.)

11. To Print Or Not To Print?

“PRINT IS DEAD,” people cry even as the print market equals the e-book market and the e-book market’s growth flattens. Print is not dead, it’s merely not always necessary — it’s not necessary in the same way that hardcover releases are not necessary to complement a mass market paperback release. Digital has offered a new way to get books into hands by not getting rid of the middleman so much as chopping him off at the knees and watching him flop around on the floor like a drunken harbor seal. Time to decide: is print important to you? Will your book not feel like a proper book unless you have a physical copy to sell? Do you think it’s a financial value-add? If you’re going to print, you should snag an ISBN number (and some e-book distributors want you to have them, too). Hint: buy ISBNs in bulk, not one-at-a-time, and be sure to own your ISBNs (which means, don’t take free ones offered by any online service). Also: where will you print the book? Lulu is good for casual print-on-demand. Createspace is better for an expanded, persistent run. Don’t hesitate to check with local printers. Do not try to print copies on that dot matrix you’ve been keeping since 1987, the one that smells like cigarettes and burned plastic.

12. Kickstart(er) Your Heart

Putting out a proper book means sinking cash into it. One option to help mitigate costs is crowdfunding — Kickstarter being the most popular, though not necessarily the best, option. Crowdfunding is simple in theory, occasionally complicated to execute: you put together a song and dance video. (Mine featured juggling cats, a capybara show, inverted twerking, and a great deal of plaintive weeping.) You set a goal. You ideally use the campaign as a pre-order service for pledging contributors along with a series of escalating pledge rewards (e-book, print, autographed copy, Tuckerization, prostate massage, lunar excursion with the author). Be aware: crowdfunding is for authors who already have an audience waiting. The crowd will not crowdsurf you from the stage but rather to it. No crowd to start means you’ll never see the stage at the end.

13. Thou Shalt Not Smear A Booger-Ugly Book Cover On My Screen

Sit down. Let’s talk for a minute. The hazy nebula of self-published books contains a disturbing margin of shit-nasty covers. Some of them are mediocrity given form: minor league graphic design skills pushed beyond their rational limits. Others are downright offensive to the eyes: the visual equivalent of the author misting me in the eyes with hot cat urine. If you’re going to do your own book cover, have a few independent sources verify your capability. Otherwise: hire out. Look for artists and designers able to produce book covers that look as good as — hell, better than — the books you see on bookstore shelves. Also important: the book cover has to look good small. See those book covers on Amazon? That big.

14. The Vagaries Of Book Design

Sometimes, it really is as easy as taking your Word *.doc and drop-kicking it into the processing e-book sausage machine provided by Amazon or B&N. (Quick tip: when B&N creates your ePub, you get a screen just before finalizing where you can download the ePub direct to your computer. Do this. Now you have the ePub file that B&N buyers will get. Ta-da.) This doesn’t always work as super-awesome as you’d like, especially if your book requires a bunch of fidgety formatting fiddlybits like a table of contents or specific headers and page breaks or flashing ASCII text set to a glitchy dubstep beat. I’ve used Mobipocket Creator to create Amazon MOBI files pretty easily, and a program like Scrivener will output direct to ePub. All this gets even more complicated when you’re tasked with creating a physical design for a print copy. As always, do not hesitate to pay someone to do a professional job if you’re only capable of muddled inelegance.

15. How Much Is Your Book Worth?

The proper price of e-books is a much-debated topic — and by “much-debated,” I mean “so hotly contested that you might get shanked by a broken coffee cup just for talking about it.” The $0.99 price is probably a hair too cheap for novels, but plays well for shorter works (novellas, novelettes, serial stories, short stories). At $2.99 you get people to take a risk on you if you’re a new(er) author. More established authors can probably rock $4.99 to $9.99. Any more than that and you might get dirty looks and/or kidney shankings. My only caveat here is: free is not a price. Free is a promotional effort in which you offer a sample taste of your literary heroin in order to secure the addictive loyalty of new readers. Free is temporary. Do not price free in the long-term. If your book is always free, I assume that’s its value: worth zero.

16. Where Will You Sell?

You’ve a lot of options for where to sell your books. Amazon is the stompy 800-lb. mecha-gorilla, and you’d be a fool not to jump on his back and ride him around. I knew B&N’s Nook was in trouble long before the news did, because my sales there hovered around 10% or so of total sales. Between 15-20% of my sales are direct through this very website, and for those of you truly concerned about what percentage of each sale you keep, direct makes the most sense because it allows you to keep the lion’s share. Smashwords is so ugly and utilitarian it makes Myspace 1.0 look like THE FUTURE and I’ve found it to be unpleasant in terms of uploading books (further, I sold less than 1% there when I used that site). You’ve also got Kobobooks and iBooks to consider. All this is YMMV, of course: find where your audience buys their books and sell there. (Hint: this might also mean making friends with your local library or bookstore.)

17. Adjust Your Mindset, Part IV: The Wonder & Worry Of Amazon

I like Amazon for what it offers to those who want to publish their own work. It’s a great service, if occasionally flawed, that works in favor of the author-publisher. What’s curious is that the self-publishing mindset is sometimes, “Fuck those Big Six jerkweasels, those EVIL TENTACLED CORPORATE ENTITIES will screw you fast as they can look at you,” and yet, curiously, so many self-publishers also cheerlead Amazon — which, by the way, is a giant corporate entity. Amazon has shown a willingness to change the rules without warning. And this is where I offer: you want a diverse publishing environment that includes the counterbalance of the Big Six publishers pushing back on Amazon as well as other options for getting digital books into the hands of digital book readers. Because if “traditional publishing” falls to pieces and if we have no more options other than the Kindle on which to read our books, Amazon will have no impetus to keep author-publishers happy at the current “royalty” rates of 70%. Diversity creates competition. Competition is good. Support competition.

18. Yeehaw, Punch That Button To Go Into Publishing Hyperspace, Motherfucker!

Click ‘publish.’ Do a pants-off dance-off. Freeze-frame high-five yourself. You’re a publisher!

19. Shudder, Towel Off, And Pull Up Your Pants

Settle down, you slippery sweat-frothed eel. Being a publisher is not the same thing as being a good publisher. You’re in the middle of the hill, not the top. This is when a whole new spate of work begins. You’re in for a long haul, here — but that’s a good thing. Traditional publishing often relies on the short shock of a release day supernova to get word out. A book drops from the sky. Lands on shelves. Has a flurry of promotion and then, sometimes, you know, it’s onto the next one with the author left behind. Good publishers — including author-publishers — realize that this is a long con, not a short game. You don’t have to sell the lion’s share in that first week. You sell a little here, a little there, and then you build on that every week forward.

20. A Diverse And Not Irritating Marketing Approach

Target readers. They’re your gatekeeper now. Don’t build an audience: earn your audience. Find where they are and talk to them — not above them as if on some bullshit platform but among them because you are them. (The best writers are also readers, after all.) Get a website. Let that be your central space. Use social media to talk to people, not at people. Engage with readers and with other authors: doesn’t matter if they’re traditionally published or self-published or whether they write comic books or blog posts or whatfuckingever, you all have shit to talk about, so talk. Your job is to figure out how to be the shiny pearl in a pool full of poop because, trust me, a lot of what else is out there is a steaming heap of ordure. Cream floats in a cup of coffee but this is a pile of shit and it’s easy to get buried underneath it. Stand out. Be the best version of yourself. Try lots of things. Don’t be a jerk.

21. Adjust Your Mindset, Part V: You Are A Human, Not A Sentient Spam-Bot

Bears mentioning, because I’ve blocked a lot of self-published authors for this kind of behavior: you’re not a sentient spam-bot. Quit with the auto-DMs. Don’t sign people up for your bulk emails. Don’t use social media to forcibly invite folks to some dubious online event based around your book. Your marketing efforts should be beautiful music that draws me nearer, not a hammer that clubs me where I stand.

22. Ask For Reviews

Reviews are helpful. Book bloggers are great mouthpieces for interesting work. Ask them for reviews. Engage with them as a human and an author. Excite them about your book. This is where free is valuable: give out free copies to reviewers. Let them read it and be compelled by your cover, captivated by your description, and crushed by the might of your prose.

23. Be Very Careful About Scammy Fuckfaces And Cultish Zealots

Being an author-publisher tends to violate one of those old cardinal rules about writing where the money flows to the writer, not away from the writer. You will have to put out some of your own chits and ducats to make this thing work. Just the same, be very wary: lots of scammy scummy fuckfaces out there who want to separate you from your cash and provide you with services that you really could’ve done yourself while simultaneously locking you into contracts that force you to give up various rights and licenses and toes and first-born children. Also, while we’re putting up red flags, watch out for any of those cult-of-personality types who swear they have the One True Way to self-publish. They don’t. What they have is a small but shiny collection of anecdotal information — “artisanal data” — that supports their claims and ignores evidence to the contrary. Everybody in this gig finds their own way up the mountain. Try new things. Solicit data and opinions. Eschew cultish zealotry.

24. Stick And Move, Duck And Feint

You will need versatility. You are not the clunky slug-ass oil tanker that is a Big Six Publisher. You are the little guy — the zippy coke-fueled wave-cutting speedboat that can make sharp corners and course correct in the wink of a sphincter. Book not selling? Change your cover. Your price point. Your book description. Your marketing tactics. Do a new dance.

25. Do It All Over Again

Write more — keep spilling your guts and your heart and your brains on the page. Edit your story to a gleaming stiletto point. Publish that motherfucker like a professional. Market it like a human. Write, edit, publish, market. Keep doing it. The more you do this, the more you have a chance of connecting with the readers who will support you and your storytelling career. Throw more pebbles: ripples into other ripples. Keep doing it. Stay positive. Stay awesome.

You’re in control, now.

* * *

59 comments

  • I linked it on the writer’s site I belong to. Hopefully the people who keep saying that anyone can design a cover and that you should be able to do your own editing if you know basic grammar will read it.

  • Well done. The most successful self-published authors are the ones that treat it like a business and part of that is producing a book every bit as high quality as what is coming out from New York and the big-five. You have to start there – do anything less (either in the quality of the writing, packaging, or marketing) and you’ll likely find little success.

  • Fab post – especially as I’m currently standing at the fork in the road which heads ‘trad’ one way and ‘self-pub’ the other. Apparently, stories about rings of power are unsellable (and much too Tolkien,) according to the trad guys – even though my story is ‘worthy of publication’.

    You may just have convinced me which road to travel…

    Will be sharing on my blog, and linking back, if that’s OK? (Squidge’s Scribbles)

    • Please share! (And thanks.)

      To be clear, this isn’t an anti-traditional post. I am a “hybrid” author and do both, and love both, and think traditional has a lot to offer some authors.

      • I’m not anti-trad either – just not making much headway with the current WIP in a trad setting. Would love to be able to create something so different that the trad world will snap it up, but I guess I’m just not that kind of writer – yet. Still got a lot to learn… :)

  • Great points all…we’ve always relished the publishing end because we’re control freaks. And for our most recent, coffee-table type book are trying a kickstarter campaign to fund printing to be able to do it in USA. Very hard. They don’t mention all the friendship rifts after kickstarter from family members/friends who were not supportive!

  • “author-publisher” — you are a writer who is in business. So, understand what it is you are doing when you make business decisions. Exactly right. Don’t waste time whining about the terrible contracts you’ve signed. Read them and don’t sign them if you do not understand them. Ask someone. Do not sign anything (or click accept) while in the throes of Step 8, or you will Boomcake yourself in the face.

  • Something to remember regarding point 22: During the California gold rush (indeed, with all gold rushes), the ones who made lasting money were the people the sold the shovels, sold the blue jeans they wore, sold the food the miners packed into the wilderness. These people sucked up all the value that was being dug up from the ground.

    Don’t let this happen to you. It bears repeating: Money should flow to the writer, not the reverse. Carefully look at everything that stops or diverts the flow of money. Don’t trade an unending tap into the money flowing to you for cover art, editing (of any sort) or “publicity”. These are all piecework jobs that don’t warrant a percentage of the money being earned by your writing.

    • Word. It’s been interesting/terrifying to see the scammers rising up out of the muck and mire to offer “services” to author-publishers. Research, research, research is your friend. Hit up informative boards like KindleBoards and AbsoluteWrite to find good people to help you and get references for help putting out the best product you can.

      Free is not necessarily good. And cheap sure as heck isn’t.

  • Thanks for sharing so much information, humor and wisdom.
    I’ve posted a link on my blog, and I’m posting selected quotes on a few people’s Facebook walls just to piss them off – they’ll never learn anyway.
    Cheers!

  • Simultaneously encouraging and discouraging. I so totally suck at the business end. Probably should have gone trad., but had other reasons for the DIY approach. Oh well. I probably have another 30-40 years to get the word out. And I can write a lot more novels in that time.

  • Chuck,

    You ARE the unicorn. Bravo. Every word is spot-on. This is how you do it. Your post serves as my validation. Four years in and I’ve finally got it. Thanks for putting it all together in one amazing, inspirational post.

    Yes!!!!!

  • Thank you, Chuck, whose last name = one letter short of ‘wendigo’. Your and Delilah’s ’25 Steps…” made me laugh, offered insights and settled me deeper into my unicorn saddle. I also shared the bejeezus out of it–it was that good.

  • Lovely post! Any chance you’ll someday write an entire follow-up post on #23 (Be Very Careful About Scammy Fuckfaces And Cultish Zealots)? I’d love a little more information about those scary unsolicited emails from a new audiobook company or the freelance editor “who just wants to help [you] succeed”…

  • #7 yes. I read a very interesting (but VERY hard core sci fi) short story that I was the only one on the online crit group to read. I read it on its no-one-likes-you-here-have-a-cookie second week in the cue.

    I told the author that his problem was the title. It was actually the first chapter of a novel and I think he posted the chapter title (I hope it was the chapter title). I knew there was no way he had no critiques because people had read it and had absolutely nothing good to say, or that it was so good no one could find fault.

    The title was like 5 words long and several words were unpronounceable. It was a turn off.

  • Absolutely wonderful post. I will be sharing.
    As a soon-to-be (self) published author (and I mean two to three weeks out, tops), I have read and tried to absorb as much as possible about the work involved. I have found your advice to be gold. And even with all that, when I dug into the nitty and gritty, it has been quite an experience. I think (hope?) I’ve learned even more than I thought I had. I’m not anti-trad pub, either. I just think this is a better path for me.
    Keep giving us the benefit of your experience. It can only make all of us better.

  • Brilliant. “In the wink of a sphincter” was the ROTF in my LMAO this morning. And by that I mean the Righteously Orphic Thunder-Fart in my Llama-Moose’s Ass Orange. Seriously, Wink Sphincter should be the name of a production company. Dibs.

    I write and have been both trad and self published and you’re hella right about the complementarity of the two methods. Thank you for framing it so correctly. All your advice here is spot-on, well-balanced, respectful, realistic, and should be read by all aspiring writers. No matter the media form, it’s always been a question of quality writing, delivery/distribution and imprimatur, and that last can mean a good agent or a respected imprint on the spine or great reviews or an enthusiastic hand sell: it’s all a form of parsing and recommendation and, essentially, marketing.

    If I had a blog I’d reblog this. I may make a blog for that sole purpose. Meantime I shall share this around town with your blessing.

    Keep up the awesomeness! Always a pleasure to read your stuff.

  • SO funny, I really enjoyed this. I think we share the same sense of humour (yes that is the right way to spell it – I’m British) and probably therapist and parole officer as well. I have signed up.

  • Awesome post. Can’t wait to get my first novel published. Love this piece of advice the best: Publish that motherfucker like a professional. Market it like a human. Write, edit, publish, market. Keep doing it.

  • Really like your style, Chuck. Really. We have a very similar sense of humor — I’m a bit like you minus the “fucks” (because I am also “Mommy”). What I’m trying to figure out is whether I should get a domain name that is a real .com or just stick with my free service. Does it make a difference?

  • December 8, 2013 at 9:45 PM // Reply

    My first book was “author-pubbed” after being rejected a number of times. I recouped the initial investment, but failed in marketing. However, the second part will likely be published the same way using all of the lessons I’ve learned in the last four years.

    Thanks Chuck. This took a lot of guilt off of my shoulders.

  • Great post! Though I have to disagree when it comes to the editing part. Not that I personally believe any published book should NOT be edited well
    and closely proofread. I definitely do think you should strive to put out a quality product. But I know of a few self-published books that still enjoyed medium to huge successes despite being poorly edited… It seems to me that as long as the story is readable—and, above all, compelling—you’ll still do alright…

  • I came across this post while looking for last minute tips. I am preparing to get my children’s book downloaded for Kindle. I have never done it before and the whole process seems intimidating especially since the book has illustrations and I am a Linux user. I think this is one of the most useful posts I have read so far. Thank you.

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