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  • The Road to Self-Publishing: Oh the Mistakes I Made!
The Road to Self-Publishing: Oh the Mistakes I Made!
Written by
Angela Tung
October 2011
Written by
Angela Tung
October 2011

It's been a week since the BlogHer Writers' Conference, and I'm still thinking about stuff.

I participated on a panel, Alternative Publishing Models: It's Not Only about the Printed Hardback. It was great fun (despite a cold and some terrible insomnia). I talked about my reasons for self-publishing (mainly, I got tired of waiting), some of the fun stuff I've done to promote my book, and my experience with Lulu (could have been better). But what I didn't talk about were my mistakes.

Mistakes? But surely did this whole process perfectly my first time, right? Wrong.

To tell the truth, I've been hesitant about sharing these. I thought it might hurt my chances at success. But if I'm sharing what I've learned, why not share EVERYTHING, warts and all?


Haste makes waste

 Impatience helped me at first. After six years of writing, revising, rewriting, submitting, resubmitting, rewriting, and revising again, I decided enough was enough. It was more important that people read my stuff, not that it had a particular agent or editor liked my work. But as I got closer to my launch this past May, I got really impatient. I was very focused on my cover design, the format of my book, and my marketing plan. I wanted to make sure the book looked perfect. However, I neglected one thing.


I had copyedited my manuscript before. But several months before my launch (that November during NaNoWriMo), I rewrote my book once more. I deepened and broadened many scenes, and changed it from past tense to present. After NaNoWriMo, I read and polished my manuscript again, more focused on content than line editing. I checked and double-checked the formatting, and caught a few typos. I ordered a copy of my book (Lulu doesn't offer proofs) mostly to check how the cover turned out. It was nearly perfect save for one tiny mistake on the back.

A little voice in my head said, Maybe you should read through it once more before launching. But it was already May. I had planned to launch in May. Lulu took forever to send me my copy of my book, so that was another 10 days lost. For God's sake, I wanted my book out there ONCE AND FOR ALL. Besides, I had glanced over the manuscript when I checked the formatting. That was enough, wasn't it?

It wasn't.

After I launched my book, the first thing I noticed was a formatting error. A title page was in the wrong place. DAMMIT! But that wasn't a big deal, right? I sold some copies and gave away a bunch. I got some nice tweets and even a review. Months passed. Then a friend told me she noticed some typos. I told her thanks and put off correcting them. How many could there be?

More time passed. That September, the same friend said she was planning on buying a bunch of copies to give to her friends for Christmas. However, there were "lots of typos." So much so that they were distracting and made the book seem unprofessional.

Huh? What?

I admit it: at first I was pissed. She didn't have to be so blunt about it! But then I started looking through the book. Oy, there was a typo. And another. And another. Holy crap.

I had launched my book full of typos.

There I said it.

When people emphasize the importance of line editing, they're not kidding. Of course I knew the importance, but I was so impatient to get my book out there, I ignored my instincts. Basically, I didn't want to start looking for mistakes because I was afraid of all the mistakes I'd find, and dreaded how long it would take to go through the book again and correct them all.

It took one week.

Fired up from my friend's comment, I started tearing through my book. Every day I went through a little bit. Soon my book was riddled with post-it notes indicating mistakes, mostly ones that spellcheck didn't catch - "kiss" for "kick," for instance - and some tense mistakes ("I says" for "I say"). Also, I had two friends go through the book as well, and they caught even more mistakes that I had missed.

Now, finally, the book is clean.

This was probably the biggest mistake I made in the whole process. Don't you make it too.


Great expectations

I've written before about how my book launch was anti-climactic. In the first five days I sold seven copies, which I found very disappointing at the time. My Frisky articles sometime got hundreds of comments. I seemed to get 200 hits a day on my blog. I had over 100 followers on Twitter and 150 friends on Facebook. Surely, at least 50 people would buy my book in the first few days after my launch, wouldn't they?

Also, someone I knew who had self-published an instructional book met with great success. The free version of his book was downloaded 500,000 times. He had sold a few thousand copies of the PDF. If I had 10% of his success, I would have been happy.

BUT, my friend is way more famous than I am, at least in his field. He's worked for years and years on building up his platform: writing articles, putting out products, giving presentations. I mean, he wasn't consciously building a platform. He was doing what interested him, doing it often and doing it well.

When I complained to another friend about my lack of book sales, he said, "Seven books in five days sounds awesome. That's more than a book a day!"

Well, when you put it that way.

So how the heck do you temper your expectations? Well, you just don't have them. Keep in mind having NO expectations is not the same as having LOW expectations. I haven't changed my thinking to, I expect to sell no books today. Instead, what I'm trying to do is focus on the task at hand, whether it's continued marketing for my book or other projects.

Already working on the next project really helps. It distracts you and also gives you another chance to promote your book. For instance, almost every time I publish a short piece in The Frisky, I sell one or two books.

BONUS TAKEAWAY: Publishing short articles in webzines and websites with a lot of traffic is a great way to promote your book, especially if you're writing about something related.

Since launching my book in May, I've sold 30 copies. I'm actually quite happy about that number.


Do the hustle

One of things I tell writers who have a book they want to publish, whether with a publishing house or independently, is that they should have a marketing platform and audience set even before they write their book, let alone start shopping it around. Sure, Lulu offers marketing packages, but these cost $2900 to $4600.

You can hustle on my own in a number of ways:

Blog. After the panel, someone asked if she should "hold back" on her blog and save information for her book. My answer was no, one, because you want to start building a platform and audience, and two, what you write on your blog is usually just a brain dump, and I find that it actually helps me generate and/or work through ideas for more polished work either, whether for an essay or a book. When you write your blook, you'll push yourself even more, and write even more deeply - and also perhaps more broadly - on your topic. Also, comments and feedback may inspire you and help you generate more ideas.

Read and comment on others' blogs. And I don't mean for the sole purpose of getting more readers for your blog. I mean find blogs and sites you're actually interested in and comment sincerely. Some bloggers won't care and will ignore you, some will come visit your blog and start engaging with you. Maybe the readers of the blogs you visit will find some comment you left interesting and visit your blog.

I have what I think of as a small blog "family" - a bunch of bloggers and writers who often comment on my posts, and vice versa. I didn't go out of my way to build this family. I sought out blogs and sites I found interesting, and out of pure interest and curiosity, kept reading and commenting.

Publish shorter pieces. About 18 months before I launched my book, I hustled my ass off in terms of getting published. I kept my eye out for interesting webzines and writing sites. I pitched ideas and submitted stories. I joined The Nervous Breakdown. These sites and webzines have way more traffic than my blog, and so it was great way to get my name out there.


All of that wasn't enough.

I thought it would be. I thought just based on the above I'd be able to sell a bunch of books. It all helped, definitely. I'd have probably sold zero if I didn't have my blog, my blogger/writer relationships, and no published pieces. But I need to do more! And these are more "will do" than "should have done":

Get people to review my book. And I don't mean Library Journal or Kirkus. Those kinds of places won't even touch self-published books, unless they are already successful. I mean individual blogs and smaller sites. Only recently I've started reaching out to such sites, and let me tell you: these reviewers are SWAMPED. Some are no longer accepting books. D'oh!

Guest blog on other writers' sites. There are a million relationship sites out there. What I need to do is seek ones on the same topic as my memoir (infidelity, divorce, relationships, Asian Americans, family), and see if they're open to a guest blogger.

Give my book away. One of my panel-mates (is that a word?) was Kamy Wicoff, and she suggested the idea of giving my book away. I had thought about it before but was resistant. Wasn't the point to SELL my books, even if I made just a dollar each? Why give away something that I had invested so much time - and some money - in?

But again, the point isn't to make money. Thirty sold copies have made $30. Actually, with paying my cover designer, buying books to give away, paying for an ad in Creative Nonfiction magazine, and other stuff I'm probably forgetting, I'm in the hole by a few hundred dollars.

My plan right now is to give away PDFs of my book for a limited amount of time. It will be interesting to see the number of downloads.

Like I said, it's not too late for me to do any of this, but let me tell you: marketing is HARD. It takes a lot of time and energy - time and energy, quite frankly, that I'd usually rather be devoting to writing or researching my next project.


Stay positive

After being disappointed by my (so I thought) mediocre book launch, I was down for a while. But now I realize 30 books sold isn't bad, and I've learned so much about the whole process.

At first I was annoyed at my friend for her comment about the typos, but now I'm so grateful. If she hadn't said anything, I might have never known (or let myself know) about the typos.

There were times I questioned my decision to self-publish at all. Maybe I should have rewritten/revised it yet again; maybe I should have tried harder to find an agent. A publisher might have given me more publicity. BUT, if I hadn't self-published, I wouldn't have been sitting on that panel last Friday. I wouldn't have had that exposure.

Staying positive and learning from my mistakes is probably the biggest lesson of all.


Let's be friends

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