Adventures in Self-Publishing, Chap. 12: What I Learned Along the Way

Have you discovered The Alexandria Project?

This series highlights aspects of my experience self-publishing The Alexandria Project.   If you'd like to read the book this series is based on, you can read the first three chapters for free here. 

Greek coin with image of Janus, Courtesy Wikimedia CommonsWe’ve now gone through all the steps of self-publishing a book, so this week is summing up time: I’ll try and pull together the most important things I learned along the way, and especially those that I wished I’d known before I started. I hope to revise, expand and then self-publish this series at some point, just for the experience of doing a book entirely on my own, without a POD publisher. If so, you can expect to see more chapters pop up here from time to time as I work my way through that process.


So where to begin? Might as well go straight to the bottom line - or lines, in this case.



Isn’t it time you  read:
The Alexandria Project?

a Tale of Treachery and Technology 

Remarkably accurate while consistently spellbinding: I ran across a reference to this book at a blog unrelated to the author, and after reading one chapter, bought the book

Great thriller: In the spirit of Vincent Flynn and Tom Clancy, this cyber-security thriller is a great read. Compelling characters, great detail and an an unsettlingly plausible scenario add up to a real page-turner.

Delightfully unpredictable!  Updegrove has managed what many attempt but few can execute: a plot that is both credible and surprising….A great read – I can’t wait for the next one!

Strong characters and compelling plot: I read a lot of novels and this is a very good one. The characters are believable and engaging and the plot is compelling with several clever twists along the way….Highly recommended

Excellent and accessible techno-thriller: Updegrove…clearly knows the subject matter inside and out, but is too self-assured and smooth a writer to hide behind that insider’s knowledge….I look forward to Updegrove’s next book with great anticipation.

Great Read:  This is a very well written, highly engaging story. The scary thing about it is that the entire plot is far too possible to come to life.

Fantastic!  The Alexandria Project is a gripping novel of intrigue and suspense. The characters may be fictional, but we all know their real-life equivalents. The storyline may be fiction – but maybe not.

Read these and more 5 Star reviews at Amazon

The only part that’s fictional is that it hasn’t happened yet


Available Now for $2.99 or less


Buy at Amazon

Buy at iTunes Store

Buy at Barnes & Noble


     1. Economic Reality Number One: If you’re of a literary bent, you may be familiar with this memorable line, attributed by James Boswell to that (perhaps) most eminent of all English authors, Samuel Johnson:


No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money


Hmmm. That’s not very inspiring, is it? But wait – it gets worse, because the likelihood of you making any real money out of self-publishing is, as the scientists like to say, “vanishingly small.” So the take away is this: whatever else you do, try to keep the costs of getting your books to market to the lowest number possible, so that at least you don’t lose money in the process.


     2. Economic Reality Number Two: It’s easier to get economic benefit from having written a book, than selling it (this applies mostly to non-fiction). Writing a book is an excellent way to showcase your expertise. Being able to give away copies of a book you have written to potential clients, thought leaders and others can be a great way to show what you know. It never hurts to have a book on your resume, either, and others may refer to your work in their own books and articles. That said, keep Economic Reality Number One in mind, because the longer the book, the more it will cost to print. Clear thinking expressed economically will be appreciated by the reader and will cost you less.


     3. Economic Reality Number Three: Most of the services that POD publishers are selling are either over-priced, or not worth buying at all. I’ve covered the details in earlier installments, so I won’t rehash the details here, but I would heartily encourage you to explore alternatives like Smashwords before you sign on with a POD publisher that charges up front fees. If you do go with a POD publisher, ignore most of the items in their packages. Order the cheapest package you can, and then buy any others you want to get from them on an a la carte basis.


     4. Economic Reality Number Four: All things being equal, it’s easier to sell non-fiction than fiction. And, by the way, none of those things are equal.  People buy non-fiction because they want to learn or do something, and more often than not they won’t recognize the names of any of the other authors they see that are writing on the same topic you are.  So if your book looks more likely to have what they’re looking for, they just might buy it. In contrast, no one needs your novel, and there will be lots of names in the same genre that they already know. In other words, a non-fiction book that shows up on a topical word search at Amazon can sell itself through the “look inside” feature at Amazon. You’ve got to come up with some other way to bring a fictional work to someone’s attention, and then figure out a way to persuade them to buy it.


     5.  Economic Reality Number 5: Pricing your book is a black box. I don’t think that there are any hard and fast guidelines you can rely on today, at least when it comes to eBooks.  Personally, I think that the case for $.99 and $1.99 books of fiction is not persuasive, although these prices may very well boost sales for non-fiction.  But there’s a catch there as well – at $.30 a book, how many books do you need to sell to amount to anything?  Selling a thousand copies of a book on raising guppies would likely amount to a genre blockbuster, but at that price would net you only $300.


     6.  Visual Quality is important: I knew this to begin with, but figuring out how to end up with a product I could be proud of took a lot more effort than I expected. Don’t underestimate the importance of cover and interior design, and the quality of the paper that will be used for printed books. And don’t assume that a POD publisher will take as much care with eBook formats as you would like. One of my biggest take aways from the process is a new respect for the KISS principle: the simpler you keep your book design, the simpler it will be to execute that design.  Note that keeping a design simple does not preclude having a highly effective design.  Indeed, sometimes quite the opposite.


     7. Achieving professional quality writing is challenging: I think I’m a pretty good writer, and I should be. Besides being a lawyer for 32 years now, and therefore having to write to a high standard every work day along the way, I’ve written millions of words at this site. But to paraphrase an old saw, a writer that revises his or her own work for publication has a fool for an editor. 


No matter how many times you rewrite your book, you’ll still miss things along the way. That may be fine for a blog post, but not for a book that will bear witness to your carelessness for years to come.  Even if you get most of the overt mistakes out of the way, there will still be sentences that could have been constructed better that you’ll cringe over later. And nothing says “self-published” more than typos. I knew all that, and got a recommendation for a professional editor/proofreader, and paid her $3 a page ($750 in all) to make sure that my final book didn’t look self-published. While the person I hired was helpful on editing (I expect I made changes on about 30 pages for editorial reasons), she turned out to be a terrible proofreader. 


After I got the page proofs back, I started noticing typos in many places, as well as typographical misses (e.g., phrases separated at the beginning by an en space, and by a hyphen at the end, so that they – look like – this. A small thing, yes, but if you really want your book to look professional, they’re important. I had to pay more than $200 in extra fees to the POD publisher, because after you’ve gone to page proofs you’re charged a fee for each change. I’m still getting email from readers who are finding lots of typos, after paying $1,000 to avoid just that. Let’s just say that’s painful on both fronts.


     8. Boy, is it confusing out there: Trying to figure out what your self-publishing options are, and which one is right for you, is a huge chore, which is why I spent so much time on this topic in the beginning of this series.  Not only are there many different models to choose from, but the number of players in some categories can be enormous, and the differences among them significant.  Also, it’s not easy to find out whether individual POD publishers have good reputations for service or bad, or all of the details that you might not realize are important to you until after you’ve already signed up.  Finally, when it comes to services like CreateSpace you have to rely largely on what you can find on line, and it’s sometimes very difficult to find answers to questions that are important to you.


     9.  Communicating with POD publishers can be excruciating. I don’t know how typical the two companies I worked with may be, but if this is what the POD service model is like, then beware. The first one advertised a low up front fee, but has exactly _one_ person (half of the husband and wife owner team) working with all 2,000 of their authors. She only communicates by email, and isn’t very good at it. I eventually realized that she obviously operates on a help desk model, using stock, cut and past emails whenever she can. When she did answer directly, she was in a hurry and often either didn’t answer the question I asked, or didn’t answer in a way I could understand. If I asked it again, she’d usually just cut and paste the same answer in again. She would also refuse to answer many questions that she clearly could have (e.g., how much extra it would cost to make 30 links live in the eBook version). All in all, a terribly frustrating experience. 


With the second publisher, it wasn’t much better. Under their model, you get passed from person to person for each part of the process, and you’re never allowed to communicate directly with the layout people. All of my formatting instructions were consistently ignored time after time, and it was very frustrating getting the look and feel of the book, in the end, to look exactly like what I had given them in the beginning.


     10. If you can do it yourself, do it. Getting a book to the point of sale involves a lot of post-editing steps. For starters, you need a cover design with attractive graphics, fonts and text, and an interior design. These have to be prepared in very specific ways in order for them to be usable by printers and on-line publishers. In the case of non-fiction, you may need additional internal sections, such as a table of contents, an index, and perhaps tables and footnotes. And finally you need to convert your files into multiple formats, each of which will require extra work to make sure that they come out right. Even if you plan on doing just eBook, you’ll need to do multiple versions for different publishers, unless you opt to go with a single on-line vendor. 


While this makes using a third party very attractive to take all this off your plate, it can also lead to a great deal of frustration if you’re particular about the result. Bottom line: if you have the time and the skills, and especially if you don’t have strong feelings about having a fancy cover, take a crack at Smashwords, CreateSpace or one of the other do it yourself options and see how it goes. You’ll also get to market far more quickly.


     11. If you can’t do it yourself, consider hiring a book designer. If you don’t feel comfortable using a computer for more than word processing, but do want to have a book you can be proud of, investigate using one of the many free lance book designers out there. You’ll be able to talk directly to the person that will do your work, and will be able to save a lot of time and frustration along the way if you find one you like. They can also prepare each of the eBook and print files you need to submit to take your book to market.


     12. We need the publishing world to adopt ePub. Everyone – except Apple, Barnes & Noble and Amazon – would be better off if all publishers would commit to accept files created using the ePub standard. The on-line publishers should also commit not to convert submitted files into their own  proprietary formats. Why don’t they do this now? For all the usual reasons. They want to use their proprietary platforms to lock you into their customer base. We’ve seen this happen over and over before in other realms (most recently in the music business), and it’s rather infuriating that it’s being done to us again. For readers, it restricts choice and freedom, and for authors, it makes everything more difficult and expensive.


     13. Think carefully about print versions.  Deciding whether to do print versions as well as electronic versions of your book is an important decision.  While it may be much faster and cheaper to simply go direct to an eBook version and let it go at that, there are still lots of reasons why investing in the extra effort and cost to provide print versions can make sense.  


     14.  The Publishing world is in turmoil.  While this is hardly news, what is harder to get your arms around is how to deal with the mess as a self-published author. No one really knows what approaches will work best today, or whether the same methods will still work tomorrow, or even whether readers will be willing to pay for anything on line in the future. If you haven’t read the blog entry I wrote earlier this week on this topic, you really should.


     15. However hard you think it may be to promote your book – it’s harder. If you want to call it good news, there are lots and lots of ways to promote your book; the lists of actions are readily available and long. But the bad news is that many of the options are extremely time consuming, and none of them produces guaranteed results.


     16.  Write your book for the right reasons. You might think from the 15 points above that I would close by ruefully agreeing with the grumpy Dr. Johnson, and say that if I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t have bothered.  But the fact is that I not only would, but I plan to do it again – just differently.  Producing a book is something worth doing just to see if you can, and to have the satisfaction of actually creating a book and holding it in your hands.  And if you care passionately about books, going through the self-publishing process is as good a way as there is to understand what’s going on in the world of publishing today.  Just don’t expect to make any money, or perhaps even to get your money back.  


So where to end? Perhaps with the observation that if a modern Johnson was to find his Boswell today, that biographer might well quote him as follows:


No man but a blockhead ever self-published for money


As always, good luck with your own writing adventures. I’ll let you know if, as and when this series becomes available in book form.


Read the next chapter of this series here

Read the first chapter of this series here 

 Read Chapter 1 of The Lafayette Deception (the sequel to The Alexandria Project) here