Monday, September 17, 2007

Another voice: Advice on self-publishing from J.B. Howick

On a publishing list I subscribe to, an author posted something suggesting that self-publishing consists of getting the book printed, listing it on a Web site or two, and moving on to the next project.

This drew a particularly articulate response from the always articulate J.B. Howick, which he has graciously given me permission to post here.
Marketing is a cold, hard world—so with an apology, let me be blunt.
  1. If your self-publishing goal is to “get onto the next book,” you’re going to lose your shirt self-publishing. Please do not be fooled—self-publishing is a business and you need to be ready to run the whole thing from your home. Some people do it and make millions. On the flip side, the average self-published author royalty a few years ago was $50/year. I want you to think about how many authors earned $0 to get an average of $50 when some of the authors made millions.

  2. Many authors don’t realize that their goals as authors are usually at odds with the publisher’s goals. Nine times out of ten this is because the author is looking at the situation from an artist’s point of view (book is perfect, everyone will love it, just publish it!) rather than a business point of view (book needs a team of professionals to make it perfect, if there’s such a thing as a perfect book, and only a few people will love it, and that only after a ton of marketing and promotion, is it worth publishing?). It’s common to meet an author with the goal of writing their next great novel—but their goal should be to get their current novel to sell tens of thousands of copies, because that’s what publishers want to see when they’re considering the author’s next book.
Here is my advice:
  1. Write a dang good book. Spend the time identifying your specific target audience (even fiction has a target audience), have test readers review the book, make adjustments, have someone help you with editing, etc. Get peer reviews. Above all, get completely honest feedback. Listen to both their praise and their complaints and fix your book if it needs it (you’d be surprised how many authors refuse to do this, blaming the quality of their audience instead [emphasis mine—DM]). The story needs to be perfect in the eyes of just about everyone else but the author, and perfection almost always requires a team of people.

  2. Next, ask a few of your local newspaper or city magazine book reviewers if they would review your book. This is not only a great source for your early endorsements, but it’s a great way to get credible people to approve the book. (There are a lot of people who can do this, the point is credibility, your friends won’t be able to help unless they have something attributable to the content. That is, if you’re writing romance and your friend isn’t Joan Collins, your friend’s opinion won’t be worth much—a noted reviewer, or a librarian, or a romance-oriented bookstore owner, on the other hand….)

  3. Take the time to create a good marketing package before presenting to agents and publishers. You don’t want to be too verbose, but you need to have enough information in your marketing packet to titillate the agent or publisher. Bear in mind that agents and publishers are your first target audience (after that comes book buyers and reviewers, and then the end consumer—they’re all critically important!) and you need to keep them in mind as you write your book and prepare your kit. This kit isn’t to sell the book to the public, but to sell it to agents and publishers.

  4. Finally, set reasonable expectations. I’ve yet to meet an author who wouldn’t prefer to have a bestseller of a first book published by Random House or Harper Collins. The truth is, large companies rarely publish first-time authors and those few who are tapped rarely have best-selling first books. You could spend years hoping to convice a large publisher or an agent or you could work with a small publisher to get your first book to market much sooner. Your royalties will be smaller and you won’t be able to quit your day job (which you shouldn’t expect to do anyway) but you will be much better situated to get your second book into a big house—and that’s worth a lot.
If it isn’t obvious, I’m a big believer in managing your career to achieve success and hold one-shot instant fame in low regard.

—J.B. Howick
That highlighted sentence rings true for me. My editing clients come to me because they want honesty. But I’ve met many a self-published or vanity-published author who dismiss any suggestion for an improvement in their book as an attack on the purity of their mother.

Thanks to J.B. for the wise words!

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