Publishing Your Own Book? Proceed Cautiously.

John J. Hohn and dog Jessie

If you glance through this posting, you are a giant step ahead of where I was when I started to consider publishing a book. I plunged into the deep end right off with my novel, Deadly Portfolio: A Killing in Hedge Fund. Now, nearly two years later, I am back to a depth that’s just up to my neck instead of being in over my head.  I will proceed differently next time.

To begin, I would decide on my ultimate goal. That may sound obvious, but I was not clear whether it was to get something of mine in print or to gain wide spread recognition as a new author. Both goals, however disparate they seem, informed my decisions. I took the most expedient course on one vital step; the most over-reaching and unrealistic on the next. So—BE CLEAR. Get help. Talk it over with other writers, your spouse, your friends. And listen to your replies to what they may have to tell you.

Recognize that the publish-on-demand (POD) has overwhelmed the publishing business. Where once there were thousands of books coming out each year, now there are tens of thousands, making it immeasurably more difficult to get noticed, reviewed, promoted, and sold. Not only has the volume  increased to astonishing levels, the quality of work finding print has declined proportionately.

Starting with the basics, too many neophyte authors don’t have their work proof read by a professional. The POD publisher doesn’t give a damn about your grammar, spelling, omissions or other errors. You cannot do this yourself. Authors don’t see their own errors. Authors read into every phrase what they intended. Ask any attorney about how legal documents are proofed, and you’ll get a measure of what it takes to produce error free document. Get a professional to do it and pay for it. It may be expensive, but not nearly as costly as reissuing the book, as I did, nor as disheartening as having your best effort presented in a sloppy manner and constantly hearing about it from others.

And while you are at it, hire a good story editor also. They can be found on the Internet. Involve this expert as soon as your first rewrite is complete. A story editor will advise you on the better options for character development, plot development, and overall composition. A story editor will fill the role normally reserved for an editor at a traditional publisher. Both steps, hiring a good copy editor and story editor—you won’t often find both skills with the same person—are a must if you aspire to being recognized widely and making the top 100 listing at any point in your lifetime.

OK. Supposed you don’t want to be the next John Grisham or Philip Roth. You don’t want to spend that much money. Then at least have several friends read your manuscript and report back their candid opinions to you. Tell them that you want them to be candid, that you don’t want to know what they liked about the book, but what they didn’t like. Don’t be defensive. Don’t be hurt. Listen. Take notes. Consider and revise if you agree. If you don’t agree, find where the manuscript failed to guide the reader in the direction that you intended. Fix it. Give the revised manuscript back to the friend and see if you have solved the problem.

If you can’t afford a professional to proof read your manuscript, take the time to print out several copies and distribute it to your friends and ask them to proof read it for you. Don’t cut corners and email the manuscript. Printed medium is far better for proof reading the any on-screen presentation. Find a good one-word-at-a-time reader, instead of speed-readers who quickly scan a page for the general meaning and move on. One-word-at-a-time readers are usually not college grads.

Still want a shot at getting a traditional publisher? Traditional publishers are not making a lot of money these days. They want books by well-known authors—Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, Colin Powell (you get the idea)—so your book is a 10 million to one shot. Undeterred? Then subscribe to Writers’ Digest on line and find the publishers who will accept direct submission of manuscripts. This won’t take very long. There are only a few. Then look for the agents who will accept query letters from writers working in the genres in which they specialize.

Read a book on how to write query letters. Write the query letter in strict compliance as directed by the agent’s webs site or, if no direction is given, as detailed in the book. Send out a dozen or so query letters at a time. Don’t worry about getting two acceptances from the same mailing. If you do, it will be the least of your problems. Proof read all queries. Especially those that you submit on line. Let them stand for a day and come back to them. Get someone else to proof them also. File a perfect query letter template in your word processor. Use it over and over, but proof read it each time. Revise as you find the need.

Don’t get excited when you get a positive response requesting that you submit your manuscript. They will also probably ask you for money in payment of a reviewing fee or some such nonsense. Google any organization that requests your manuscript before you send them anything—money or otherwise. Yes, Virginia, there are a lot of crooks trying to bilk money away from aspiring, naïve writers. Be careful. Nobody, by the way, is going to steal your work, so don’t rush out to hire an attorney or spend the money to get it copyrighted. Ignore the ads that say otherwise that always appear on web sites dedicated to writers and publishing. They are trying to make a buck also.

Assuming you fail to  find a traditional publisher (safe assumption), you may decide to go to a publish-on-demand or self-publishing printer. Shop around. Scores of companies, large and small, are out there looking for work. They may make it sound like your work has been selected as if in a competition of some sort. Don’t fall for it. They write the same thing to everyone. They want the work. They probably will never read a single page of what you submit. They will not be cheerleaders and coaches. Most of the time, they have young inexperienced clerks on the front end of their service, saying whatever needs to be said to urge a writer forward, being pleasant and wonderful. If it makes the day more pleasant to think of any one of these service people as a good friend, get real and recognize the clerk handling your case has a quota to meet, probably gets a good ass chewing whenever an author drops out of the lineup, and is pushed all of the time to take on more volume and spend less time on each case.

If you decide to self-publish, you need to reaffirm your goals. If all you want is friends and family to read your book, make price  and quality your primary concerns. Price in this instance is your cost as the author, not the selling price of the book. You want your cost as low as possible because you will be giving away most of your books, and those that you do not give away, will sell on consignment. On consignment, you will need all the margin you can get. The usual split is 60/40 with a dealer—that’s 60% to you and 40% to the dealer for displaying the book, collecting the money, paying sales tax, and hopefully putting in a good word for you now and then.

Do the math. There are break points in pricing on paperback books. There’s nothing very rational about it. Go to a local bookstore and make a mental note of the prices being asked for books of comparable size and on similar subjects as yours. $13.99 popular price point. 60% of $13.99 is $8.39. If your price for the book from the printer is $4.24 (which is what createspace charges me), you are working with a $4.15 margin. That’s not all profit, or course. You had to pay for shipping to get the books from the publisher to you. That could run as high as $.50 a book. You have your gas mileage to and from the bookstore, and you have the value of your own time.

Don’t be disheartened that you are working at below minimum wage if you do not get volume—which leads me to yet another point.

Don’t count on your friends to buy your book. One guy will buy one copy, and it will make the rounds so that several will read it. You will find yourself smiling through teeth at some buddy who comes up to you and tells you how great the book was, while you, all along, know damn well he borrowed it from someone else. Taking a stab at it, I’d guess that for every one book you sell, at least 5 people will read it. So, take the number of people on you list and divide by 5. There’s a lot to be said for lowered expectations.

Watch this web site for the next posting on this subject, as I plan a series. In the meantime, if you have enjoyed this article, I would like to invite you to learn more about my mystery novel, Deadly Portfolio: A Killing in Hedge Funds. Look to the left hand side of this page and clink on the caption “About the Book.” Thanks.

EDITORS NOTE: I work alone. I do not have an editor. I compose my posts using Word and transfer to the word-processing program available through my web site manager. I use the spell check facility on both programs. Some spellings are personal preferences, such as “advisor” for “adviser.” (Either is correct.) I intentionally use incomplete sentences or fragments as a stylistic choice. As writers seldom are good proofreaders of their own work, I welcome all corrections regarding errors in the text and apologize in advance for any oversights on my part.