Composing a Writer #12. What True Self-Publishing Means

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been told I was destroying my life. It started in high school where every choice carried potential doom; if you don’t go to college, if you don’t go to the right college, if you sleep with your boyfriend, if you try drugs. I’m sure there are still people waiting for my unplanned pregnancy forty-five years later. Meanwhile, I did have an adolescent crush all right. On Shakespeare.

Choosing to self-publish started the doom threats again. Some literary folks believe not finding a publisher will destroy any credibility you or your book could ever have. That there’s a vain glory in waiting ten or twenty years, suffering for art like an unrequited lover. Balanced against that the fact that the average number of sales for a self-published work is a measly 250 over the lifetime of the book.

Publishing can feel hopeless but perhaps the way you can tell you’re ready is that you’ve completed the millionth edit of your book and you’re at a place where it’s harder to not publish than it is to go forward. Confidence has slipped in with the editors, beta readers, and re-writing. You got stronger through the process, you think you can survive the leap.

[Reminder: This is a series about writing; a map of the paths and stopovers that I made in my book process. I’m no literary expert but as a way of saying thank you, I’m sharing my attempts to navigate all the usual roadblocks.]

Self-publishing starts innocently. Someone asks if you know that Amazon will publish an ebook for almost no money. It’s true and it takes less than twenty minutes to become a published author. There are no quality checks –part of the reason eBooks get a bad name. You can publish without so much as a spell check. If you think your family and a handful of friends will be your only readers, it might be good enough.

Here’s the catch. Amazon is working on a plan for world domination. They have nearly put Barnes and Noble out of business and Barnes and Noble were the biggest booksellers in history, having already threatened to put indie bookstores out of business. It’s that big fish eats little fish model of capitalism. So, it makes sense that indie bookstores don’t buy CreateSpace (Amazon’s publishing branch) books. Better to not use their ISBN number as it catalogs your book forever as Amazon’s and you don’t get to support your local bookstore. It seems like a quick publish but is it worth the limitations and politics and ongoing royalties involved?

Then you research self-publishing on the web and find a range of options. Some are vanity presses that print for money. (Think bottom feeders.) They accept all books and then sell you services like editing and cover design for various amounts of money. You might even recognize their brand names. Some authors don’t want involvement in publishing “details” and are happy to pay for the convenience. Be aware that it’s generally over-priced with a large up-front investment from the author. Editing is included and there will be a required investment of a few thousand dollars. In the end, you get a percentage of the sale but so do they –forever. Do you really want to pay them a percentage going forward for work that you’ve already paid for?

Here’s the tricky part, where the sharks live. Vanity presses frequently call themselves self-publishers.  Those are two different things but it’s very hard to figure that out doing the research. It’s an industry secret of sorts. There are varying sales pitches with lots of gray areas. Some of those vanity press books are beautiful. Not to mention, they’re great at selling themselves to authors. It can sound reasonable because traditionally published authors get a few cents a book. If you sell like Stephen King, it adds up but for small fish, not so much. A true self-publish should mean that you get all the money.

Here’s where I say again, be aware. First-time authors are like fat trout in the stream, easy picking because we’re inexperienced and tend to wear our hearts on our sleeves. There is an industry of businesses who prey on our naiveté and passion and they work right beside professionals with ethics and knowledge to help us. It’s hard to tell the difference in the beginning.

Most confusing for me was a hybrid press that asked for submissions just like an indie press would. I got the thrill of being accepted, along with a flattering phone call, only to find out that it would cost almost $10,000 to get my book to press. Sure, they offered a bit more than the cheaper vanity presses but that was an impossible amount of money. They tried to make me feel guilty or uncommitted but the money wasn’t possible. Once I verbalized that, their enthusiastic interest in my book evaporated.

A big deciding factor for me with Stable Relation was that I’d paid for three professional edits in the process of writing. It was a wonderful and educational investment. The quality of my manuscript was a direct result of that but why pay for it again, as most so-called self-publishers or vanity presses required?

The family story goes that my first sentence was, “I’ll do it myself.” As a kid, I quit the Brownies after a month because I thought they were sissies, gluing macaroni on paper when there were horses to ride.

I guess it’s no surprise that in the end I’d self-publish but at least I’d taken the time to become well-informed about the process. I could write a book about publishing, but instead, here are the Cliff’s Notes:

I searched for a cover artist whose work I liked and found Jane in England. I chose the cover from a group of designs that I had input on. She has a great eye and got all the details in place. She was knowledgeable and made the process of cover and interior design quick and easy. The cover needed a bold visual and with my art background, I was picky. I wanted my true self-publish to stand proudly on shelves next traditionally published books. Hiring a professional achieved that.

Jane returned the finished covers and interiors, both paperback and ebook, in digital file format, along with bookmarks and PR images, and a bill for a few hundred dollars instead of a few thousand. The rest was easy:

  • I filed a business name for my publishing company. Prairie Moon Press was born for a few dollars.
  • I bought my ISBN numbers from Bowker in the name of Prairie Moon Press.  I bought a group of them; each book and eBook need its own identification number.
  • I set up an account with Ingram Spark. They are the largest international distributor of books; the place that Barnes and Noble and all other independent bookstores buy from. Uploading my book’s files was as easy as posting on Facebook and within a week, a proof of Stable Relation came in the mail. The cost for set-up is $49.
  • I set up free eBook distribution on Smashwords for international availability.
  • After that, I opened an account on Amazon CreateSpace, because I knew the vast majority of my sales would be there. They can buy the books from IngramSpark but they charge me more and availability is spotty. Meaning Amazon likes to do business with themselves best. I uploaded both paperback and eBook there, and again, a proof arrived in a week. No charge to set up with your finished files.
  • The books become available when the proofs are accepted. The whole process is fairly simple and although IngramSpark and Createspace take a small percentage for distribution, your royalty is much higher than you’d think. You are now an author and a publisher.
  • Finally, it’s time to promote your book. During this part, to beat a dead metaphor, you gasp for air like a prehistoric catfish landed in the Sahara. And you have only begun!

This is the last post of this series, and probably the least interesting –being more technical that creative. Please understand that I take this task seriously. There’s always business required for art to succeed and I respect that. I’ll continue to write about writing and I’ll tag to this series. I’ll toss out writing challenges from time to time. Thank you to everyone who’s played a part here. I want to end sharing the words we started with –a call to your craft:

“Writing is the art of molding our voices to say just the exact thing we mean, with honesty, vulnerability, and hopefully a little humor. Take your writing seriously. Whether the world ever reads us or not, it’s past time that we give our own words the respect they deserve.”

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

Composing a Writer #10. A Manuscript is Not a Book

Let’s say pigs fly. You’ve written the thing you always wanted to write. It’s a miracle. It’s been in your mind since reading that first book that stole you away. It means you’ve sat by yourself for untold hours and managed to commit the words to the page. You’ve edited it to perfection with an obsessive-compulsive love disorder that includes nurturing the idea like a baby bird, watching it grow feather by feather, only to hack it to bits with a meat cleaver so it can rise from the flames …a phoenix. Ta-da. You have a completed manuscript.

I don’t know how this would feel to a fresh young mind, but I do know how it feels in the second half-century of life. Fist-pumping elation and a happy dance complete with the backside shimmy that’s best left undescribed. This is where the story ends in the movie version. The End scrolling over my… um, end.

Meanwhile back in real life, I notice that I don’t actually have a book. I have a file in my computer. It feels marginally better than having a stack of paper that my prairie wind would surely find a way to plaster along the south fence line.

I’m feeling a strange combination of gosh-it’s-no-big-thing humility and I-did-it-I-did-it! pride for a thing stuck inside my computer, when a stranger saunters into my thoughts. Someone with a swagger and she might be wearing a push-up bra. At first I guessed her name was Kills Kittens for Fun but no, it was Ambition. I could tell because the word was lettered in cursive across the chest of her sweater… a sweater that might have fit her back when she was a high school cheerleader. And worse, a couple of inches of her midriff was showing. She set down her suitcase, drained her can of beer, and burped. Just kill me.

[Reminder: This is a series about writing; a map of the paths and stopovers that I made in my book process. I’m no literary expert but as a way of saying thank you, I’m sharing my attempts to navigate all the usual roadblocks.]

This Week: We’re ten weeks in and writing is vying for equal time as your primary language. Words flow like a conversation with an old friend. You have as many words to write as you have to speak; you have paragraphs and chapters, you have a book, a trilogy, a tetralogy, a pentalogy and even a hexalogy. You are filthy stinky rich in nouns and verbs and adjectives.

Assignment: Write about the day after an accomplishment or graduation or the birth or death of something. Write about the thing after the thing. Write your feelings about ambition; how does it fit you? What do you think of ambitious women? Men? Is it okay to make money from your art? Or write the hardest thing of all –write something intentionally funny. You can tell it’s working if you chuckle while you type. Then share whatever you like on our Writing Herd Facebook page. Or comment on what others have written. Or, just know we are your herd, no excuses necessary. Wait and jump in when it’s right for you.

It was my last chance to slide the manuscript in a drawer, or bury it in my tax return file on the computer. But instead, I had an overwhelming need. Nothing prepared me for how much I wanted my manuscript published. I thought writing it would be enough but each step in the writing process edited me as a would-be author. I changed as much as the manuscript did but I’d been so busy writing and studying the publishing world, that I hadn’t noticed. But now I was overtaken with an uncomfortable ambition to get the story out in the world and I’d worked on it so completely that I thought Stable Relation was worthy of that. It was like waking up with a weird kind of amnesia: I knew exactly who I was but I had no history to prove it.

There is so much attitude in the writing world about the publishing question. Some will say submitting to traditional publishers are the only way to get that genuine stamp of acceptance. Publishers are the gatekeepers to a literary career. That any less means your writing has no value because self-published books are trash. So, you worship the rich history of suffering, related by examples of famous authors whose work got rejected time and again before they became famous. Because we all know the very best artists wear suffering like war medals on their chests. It’s the Big Five Publishers or die!

But the Big Five Publishers are more distant and élite than ever before. Some say they are all going down because they aren’t keeping up with changes in their industry. But to get a manuscript to the big boys, they say you must be someone famous or know someone famous. You’ll need an agent because the very idea of traditional publishing is running the other direction. So, you attend conferences and try to network. And worry that you’ll always be a groupie for famous authors while paying off your travel debt and remaining unpublished yourself.

Small presses are a possibility. Genre publishing is booming and it’s a door open to authors of romance or Christian or children’s books. Opportunities drop off fast if you aren’t in one of those genres. And Stable Relation was every publisher’s ugly stepchild –a memoir. Even with a popular genre, small presses won’t invest in an author unless she can prove she has readers waiting. If you manage to hook a small press, they will promote your book for sixty days but it takes them twice that time to let you know if they will even read your manuscript.

Or do you self-publish? Because technology has changed the publishing world. Because everyone knows a self-published book that broke the glass ceiling like Still Alice did. Because some published authors are now self-publishing after being dropped by publishers who won’t publish new books. Or do you find the statistic that says that only 10% of self-published books sell more than a hundred copies?

There’s no answer, so you spend a few thousand hours more, researching publishing and self-publishing online, and see that there is no more agreement than there was a month ago. You think no one wants your book. You think self-publishing could be a swamp filled with alligators, and one with particularly gnarly teeth could have yarns from a certain cheerleader sweater dangling like bloody floss.


Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

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Judging a Book by its Cover.

Designing a cover. No big deal really.

First, you spend heart and soul telling a story, early mornings and late nights when it would be easier to do almost anything else. Sound dramatic? Sitting alone at a desk can be dramatic, it turns out. Some days there are fist pumps in the air and tears stream down your cheeks and you howl at the moon because the words fall into perfect sense. Other days turn into a week, staring at one paragraph. One.

Then, when you’re a few months in, it occurs to you that you’ve left out the part of the story that defines the rest of the story. It’s the backstory, and just like the heart in your chest, it’s what pumps all of the energy from one place to another. So you start over.

Do I sound obsessed? Because it’s the only way this storytelling thing works, as far as I can tell. Oh, and one other thing: you have to actually have something to say that you don’t lose track of under all those words.

Okay, the first draft is done and it’s time to edit, to get the focus cleaner, to cut closer to the bone. You add parts that scare you. At the same time, you “kill your darlings.” You cut four chapters out entirely. Good chapters, but you want the story to run fast and light as a filly. You stitch your words to a deeper truth, the one that transcends personal experience because that’s the only reason anyone would want to read about your little life. And because if this story comes off as trivial you will have failed; you will have done a disservice to the gifts you have been given. Your thank you will not be heard. Months pass, seasons change. Your dogs think you aren’t as much fun as you used to be.

When you think it’s close to good, you hire strangers, editors, and let them sift through your guts. Your precious words come back with red ink and “Why should I care?” on the top of pages. When the bile goes back down your throat, you find better words and re-write the story to lead the reader to caring. Gently, secretly, because you can’t push. Readers hate being lectured as much as you hate red ink.

You hire three professional edits from three different editors over the course of a year, scraping the money together, until you hear back just what you wanted to hear. It’s good. Really good. You lose count of the number of re-writes but it continues, maybe one word choice in a chapter, until each of the 79,000 words is arranged just the way you intended. As easy as herding cats.

You can tell you’ve become a wing-nut but you’re powerless to stop the free-fall. Friends are decidedly nervous. You could have built a sailboat and gone around the world by now, but that’s not your dream and you’re still sitting at your desk. Twenty four months have passed and against the common sense any introvert is born with, you actually want others to read it. It sounds crazy-dangerous in your own head, but that’s all. Just read it.

Imagine the shock when it dawns on you that we actually do judge a book by its cover. And all of your effort is distilled down to this over-used cliche. Each one of your perfectly chosen words is perched on one side of a teeter-totter and one measly cover image weighs heavily on the other side. It’s a pass-fail test: if the cover doesn’t work, no one will ever see the words. It all comes down to a first impression; a second in time. No pressure.

Then you hear Rick’s voice in your head; Bogart in Casablanca, “Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

Get over yourself and pick a cover. This is it, I’m betting my book on it. No big deal really.

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Gatekeepers and Temple Grandin

GrandinTrotI went to hear Temple Grandin speak this week. I’m not sure how many times I’ve seen her now, but she’s my hero. There are a million reasons to love her; for what she’s done for animal understanding and welfare, and for people with autism, but also for her confident opinions and one-of-a-kind self. It can’t have been easy. She has made not fitting in an art form. Over the years, she seems a bit more comfortable, or maybe we are more accepting of her, but now at 67, she’s a live wire. A force of nature. She has a lot to say and she says it fast!

Living with her particular autism has given Temple Grandin a voice to admire, not that she hasn’t paid for it. But then, don’t we all pay a price for what we say or don’t say? Pay a price for who we are?

I first met Temple Grandin while reading her book Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior. Her words filled a gap for me; she gave me a more positive way to see my own species. Like her, I’m extremely visual and I struggled with people, thinking that we all “saw” the same thing. When she described how her brain worked, I recognized it. I’m not autistic, but I didn’t know our method of thinking was different until she explained how most people think. She almost made too much sense.

Like the rest of us, Temple Grandin bumped up against Gatekeepers: people who maintained the status quo. But sometimes the standard practice needs improvement, so she found a way around roadblocks to do her work. Change is hard; shaking up the status quo, whether it’s mainstreaming autistic kids or saying slaughter houses need to be re-designed from the bottom up, is going to agitate people.

Gatekeepers have a purpose; there is a value to order and tradition, and at the same time, growth and evolution is inevitable. In publishing, the tradition is that a few publishers have control over what books come out. Authors are powerless, hoping to get a nod of validation, even as the ocean of manuscripts totally drowns publishers every day of the year.

There are well-worn stories of rejection and redemption, but do you ever think about the ones that got away? The Pulitzer manuscripts stuffed into drawers? When I studied art history, I was always left wondering about painters who were not men or who didn’t have a patron. How many possible Old Masters were just never discovered? How many women painted secretly? Somewhere in the soup, there is luck. Just dumb luck.

Technology is blowing the publishing industry apart right now. No one knows what’s next. Traditional publishers are resisting the change, previously published authors who have a stack of rejections are considering taking another path, and anyone can upload an eBook to Amazon and be an author in an hour, with not so much as a spell-check required. It’s chaos.

Temple Grandin says, “What would happen if the autism gene was eliminated from the gene pool? You would have a bunch of people standing around in a cave, chatting and socializing and not getting anything done.” The person who doesn’t fit the norm might be the best thing that ever happened.

My week in self-publishing: I’ve heard from two small presses in the last two weeks. Each asked if my manuscript was still available. It doesn’t mean they want it; they just took longer to say maybe. Part of my brain says, “Wait, give them a few months and maybe they will want it–most likely with a few story line changes and a new title. Maybe they will make my book legitimate.” The other side says, “Just do it.”

So the learning curve continues. It’s been a week of ISBN numbers and formatting questions. What size should the book be, what kind of binding and production, and how will I promote it? My newsletter is coming together. The first cover reveal will be there and a sneak peek at a chapter or two. I’m studying up on giveaways. If you want the inside skinny on my book, sign up on the link at the top of the page.

Two days ago I met a person who looked at me with disdain for self-publishing, probably assuming I was another idiot who couldn’t use spell-check and didn’t deserve publishing. It’s a Catch-22. I don’t have a physical book so I can’t ask her to reconsider.

Maybe some of us were never good candidates for fitting in. Maybe self-publishing is a better fit for someone who believes her right to a voice shouldn’t be dependent on the judgment of others. (No surprise it’s a theme in Stable Relation as well.)

Is there something simmering inside of you, too? I dare you… take a cue from Temple Grandin.  Be the real, weird, funny, smart, and utterly beautiful person you are, and then speak up. Like a force of nature.


A Job that Needs Doing…

PinkLords,SunriseOne of my first apartments after leaving home had a nasty-cold floor in the bathroom. Winter was coming, so I bought a carpet remnant and cut it to fit around the sink and toilet, and tacked it down. It was a huge improvement.

“How did you know how to do that?” My roomie was thrilled. I didn’t exactly know the answer. It seemed kind of obvious to me but at the same time, it was hard to verbalize.

I recently spent some time on my childhood farm in Minnesota. In the process of writing my memoir, I got to return there–in my imagination. Decades later that failed farm was still beautiful; my first horses were still in the pasture. To tell the truth, I’ve never been far away.

I remembered driving a tractor during haying season when I was hardly old enough for school. Someone clutched the tractor into gear and I’d perch on the seat and steer as it rolled along. When we needed to stop, I had to slide my bottom off the seat and dangle from the steering wheel to push the brake. I’d like to say my parents believed I could do anything I set my mind to–but it wasn’t that inspirational. Like most farmers, we just couldn’t afford to hire a hand.

It was a hard life; I can’t romanticize it even now. Everything on a poor farm is homemade. As I got older, I designed my prom dress–very unique but homemade. You know the curse-of-death that term has coming out of a teenager’s mouth, right? I seriously lacked any veneer of sophistication, then as now, but I did have the practical awareness that you just did the work, because it wouldn’t get done otherwise.

So sure, I can install carpet. I can replace a window and build fence. And now, this: one step after another, I wrote this story that everyone seems to love, but no one wants to take a risk on. One editor even mentioned a possible movie deal but it’s crazy. There’s this one big hitch: no one can read it because it’s tucked away in my computer. So there you go–a job that needs doing.

This is week 2 of self-publishing. I hired a book designer in the UK whose cover art and interiors are really a cut above. I sent over my ideas and she’ll start to work this week. I’ll let you see what she comes up with.

In the meantime, I’m spending hours reading online about marketing and distribution, checking out reviews of printing companies, and getting online-savvy about virtual book tours.

I notice my agility with a post-hole-digger is no help at all with any of this, but at least I’m over that teenage notion that homemade things are dorky or inferior.  Soon enough, Stable Relation will be for sale on Amazon, aspiring to look as sophisticated as a Vera Wang gown…with a few stray horse hairs and some traces of dog spit.

(Come along on the ride–sign-up at the top of the page for the newsletter. Thank you!)

Claiming My Space in a New Herd.

BhimRules.I don’t think I’ve ever once checked to see who the actual publisher was of any of the books I’ve read. In the last year, it’s all I do.

In defense of traditional publishers–it’s complicated. I have read lots of very sobering statistics lately. Book sales have dropped every year since 2007 and at the same time, a higher number of books are published each year. Meaning there is a market glut. The average book sells 250 copies–no matter if it’s traditionally published or self-published. That takes eBooks into account; the threat that they would take over the market never materialized. No wonder publishers are conservative. Selling 250 books isn’t enough to break even and people are losing serious money. And when you take Stephen King’s cut out, it’s even worse.

Some of you have suggested self-publishing. I’ve been researching that enough to know there are lots of scams out there. Some commercial self-publishers are called vanity presses because the authors are fine with spending money on a lark and sales don’t matter. The hairy ones who live in my barn like to keep an eye on what I’m doing with the hay money.

Still, early on I had the opportunity to speak with a retired publisher and her advice, surprisingly, was to self-publish. She said I had about the same chance of being picked up by a publisher that way as the submission process. And my story would be being read in the process, which turns out to be harder to accomplish than you’d think.

Self-publishing means there is virtually no chance it would ever be in a bookstore and all the marketing and promotional work would be up to me. They tell you to consider the market. Will you sell enough books to recover the investment? Most people don’t. Self-publishing is an option–all it takes is money and time. And the confidence that your book will find an audience larger than your circle of friends.

Other options: I could attend writer’s conferences and hope to meet someone who knows someone. Some agents advise authors to submit chapters to contests, as short stories meant to spark interest. Memoir isn’t in the top five popular book genres, so re-writing memoirs into fiction is a frequent suggestion. I wonder how many people who manage to get the manuscript written, a gargantuan task in itself, end up blocked by this wall?

Week 16 and not a peep from publishers. I have two other books in the editing process, and three other books outlined. And I’ll be 61 this year. Do the math.

Nadja left this comment last week, “And it’s funny somehow because around horses the first thing one does (at least if one is appealed by horsemanship) is to claim one’s space. I have trouble doing that outside the barn though.”

Me, too, Nadja. And it doesn’t get easier as time passes. There’s a family story that the first sentence I learned to say was, “I’ll do it myself.” It wasn’t relayed as amusing or clever of me; it was brought up as proof that I had always been bull-headed–not a compliment. Even on a farm, it wasn’t a desired quality in a little girl. I’m not sure the world is ready for bull-headed little girls yet.

I had hoped a traditional publisher would stand up for me and my book. I haven’t had much of that kind of support in my life and it would be nice. But if this book thing is like any other herd, then I have to carve a space for myself. Or maybe at this age, I’m just tired of asking permission. I do know this for sure: life is short, I’m still bull-headed, and I’ve got a charge card.

And so, with a drum roll that sounds a little like a tense trot, I announce that Stable Relation will be published by Prairie Moon Press. Me.

But of course, by “me,” I mean us.

I’d be grateful for your continued help. I promise to make plenty of room.