Some Lessons I've Learned Since I Started Self-Publishing
Contributor

This entire self-publishing journey I’ve been on since 2012 has been frustrating, cathartic, satisfying. When I first started, I had no clue what I was doing–I just jumped in and hoped for the best. Now you can take classes and learn the ‘right’ way to do it. I kind of like learning by doing.

So what have I learned?

Make sure your cover looks good: Yes, I know I should follow the old adage of never judging a book by its cover, but–let’s face it–we all know an ugly book cover can ruin the impression people have of a book. It should look professional. Make sure the image on the cover is in proportion so it doesn’t look blurry or weirdly stretched out. The fonts used on the cover should be easy to read. The image chosen should be clear even in thumbnail size. Avoid tackiness at all costs. Nothing like a tacky book cover to turn off a reader. Even if you write erotica, you can find sexy images that are sophisticated.

I’m lucky in that I work with a lot of very creative people and they’ve given me advice on covers and things to think about in book cover design. I’ve also been lucky enough to come into contact with some very talented cover designers whose prices are affordable. But one of the most important lessons I learned in cover design came from Christine Witthohn of BookCents Literary Agency, who reminded me that my book cover doesn’t have to tell the entire story of my novel or my novella. It needs to hint at  the story. It doesn’t have to be an exact representation of my main character– it can simply give people a snippet of who she is.

Don’t write to suit a trend–by the time you write and publish your book, readers will be on to some new trend: Instead of trying to jump on a trend, ask yourself what kind of book you want to write or what sort of story you really want to tell. If you like vampires but everyone else is writing about werewolves or zombies–so what!–keep writing about your vampires. You will find your readers. Or they will find you. Use social media to connect with them, post samples of your writing on your blog, connect with other writers on Scribophile. Whatever you do, write what you love and not simply what you think will sell. Sure, you probably want to make money, but if you don’t feel happy or satisfied while you write, you shouldn’t do it.

Readers like backstory. Readers hate too much backstory: I spent the last two weeks reading a novel that had an interesting story but took way too long to get to what was supposed to be the heart of the book–namely a love triangle between the heroine, a man from her past and the man to whom she was engaged. I found myself getting bored at times and wondering why the author was telling me so much about a character who never appears again. Later, there was page after page after page of a family history that felt like too much information. I already understood the character’s background and that he came from a prestigious family, I understood he was from an upwardly mobile family. I didn’t need close to ten pages of family biographies of his great-great-grandparents or who moved north and who stayed south… it didn’t add anything to the story. I want to get to know the main characters. I want to get to know the supporting characters who are important to the story. I don’t need to know that a waiter who only appears once went to Columbia. That’s great for him, but why do I need to know?

We writers *love* creating backstory, but we need to balance it. I struggle with this everyday when I write. How much should I include? Does the reader need to know he once went to Paris if it has no bearing on the story I am telling? So it means I end up erring on the side of too little backstory at times. So we writers must find that perfect balance. And it’s probably a lesson that never ends. :)

Not everyone is going to love the characters you create: Since I published Choose Meand Snowbound, I’ve had people tell me they hated Mia because she chose to be a man’s mistress or they hated Jessica because she was immature and she cared too much about what others thought. I like creating characters who make mistakes, who are flawed. I figured it was reasonable for a young woman in college who has grown up being aware of racial tension and people’s negative attitudes about interracial couples would be worried about what others thought–especially her closest friend and her mother. I wrote Mia as someone whose pride prevents her from seeing that she is being used and that she is in the wrong until it hits her in the face. She’s a changed character by the end of the book, but some people didn’t see it because they were focused on her role as a married man’s mistress at the beginning of the book.

I like Mia. I think she’s as flawed and irrational as we all are. I think some people will hate Laney (the protagonist in Maybe Baby) for the same reasons. No one is consistently good. It’s boring to write about consistently good people. Even more boring to read about them. I write about people who cheat, who have sex with strangers, who drink and smoke too much, who fuck up, who are indecisive or too  opinionated. Some people like that. Some people don’t. I’ve learned to accept that.

A good editor can be hard to find, so ask around: The first book I published, I edited and formatted myself. Even with several rounds of critique from my writers group and revising and checking, I still missed things. For Snowbound I used an editor and she was great to work with, but we still missed a couple of things that I wish we’d caught. ForMaybe Baby, I’ve had a beta reader, an editor, two rounds of proofreading, and formatting via Black Firefly Production so hopefully I’ve caught everything this time. :) Finding an editor is not always easy. Your book is your calling card and you want it to be as close to perfect as possible. And for that you need a good editor. Ask other writers for their advice. If they’ve used an editor and like working with him or her, they’ll tell you. One of my plans for this blog is to post a list of resources for indie writers,and editors who come highly recommended will be included in the list.

Don’t check your sales ranking everyday: If you do, you will drive yourself insane. Some days you’ll be really high on the list. Some days you’ll be at the bottom of what feels like a bottomless pit. Checking it over and over again won’t make your sales numbers change. Nowadays, I only check once a week. If I want to increase my sales ranking, I know I need to do more to sell my books. I don’t have a publishing company with a marketing department behind me, so I have to figure it out myself. It’s trial and error. I’ve tried a couple of things (posting excerpts on my blog and on Facebook, Kindle Countdown Deals, advertising, word of mouth) but it’s hard to say at this point which has been most effective. Anyway, as much as I’d like to be able to support myself solely through my writing, I know I cannot obsess over what will make my sales figures skyrocket. That is time better spent writing. :)

And speaking of writing, it’s time for me to write.

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