Lessons Learned from an Indie Publishing Project

This is a guest post from author Stephen Gallup.

A few years ago, a coworker of mine self-published a novel. Larry’s was by no means the first self-published book I’d read (and enjoyed), or even the first penned by a coworker. However, I was at that time considering self-publication for my own opus, and so gave his work extra scrutiny. He set a respectable standard: no typos, good prose, a riveting story, decent cover design. The only real flaw from my point of view was the typography. The letters were too small and the lines were too close together, and as a consequence I had trouble fully appreciating Larry’s tale.

In due course, I concluded that self-publishing was indeed the path I would follow. That of course meant the physical product was my responsibility. Thanks to Larry, I knew to be careful with my font selection, but surely there were other pitfalls that I didn’t even know to avoid.

In addition to a book that would be visually and tactilely appealing, I also wanted a successful rollout. My book deserved to be well-received—or at least noticed! I knew that, regardless of the path to publication, sometimes even regardless of quality, certain titles have that magic touch, acquiring a vibrant life of their own in popular culture, while many others disappear without a ripple. I did not want my ignorance of the process to doom the project.

The solution was to pay for expertise. This came, first, via an established publicist who had connections among book designers, printers, and distributors and who could guide me through those wickets. Naturally, he also had advice on how to generate a media splash and how to conduct myself in interviews, and he had strong opinions about how I ought to be spending my time in the months before and after publication.

[ois skin=”In Post Subscription”]

Perhaps inevitably, he also had blind spots. The publishing industry has been undergoing rapid changes, and despite being in the thick of it he had nothing useful to say about non-bookstore sales, ebooks, maintaining an online presence, and even how to get the attention of book reviewers. His advice on that latter question was to mail scores of advance review copies to the editors of publications from the Wall Street Journal on down. Not only did every such copy fail to generate a review, but some showed up in the online resale market even before my book’s pub date. Almost too late, I realized that it’s important to establish communication with a potential reviewer before providing a copy. When I tried that approach, results were infinitely better.

More than two years have now passed since that pub date. In the interim I’ve worked with other publicists and other paid advisors, and I’ve compared notes with friends doing the same thing. I’m not fond of broad generalizations, but if I were doing this again I would keep the following additional points in mind:


Never Hurry The Production Process

I had burnished my manuscript literally for years, during which time it received the benefit of in-depth critiques from beta readers and professional editors. Even so, one or two errors did show up in passages added or revised in the final weeks. Also, in subsequent blog posts wrestling with topics addressed in the book, I found that my thinking has continued to evolve. The changes I’d make today would not be major, but perhaps even I broke the pencil too soon. I cringe when reading other books devalued by truly obvious problems, distracting glitches that might have been cleared up with just one more editorial pass.


Delegating Does Not Mean Abdicating

Outside expertise exists to fill in the gaps where I am weak. But what’s the defense if a contractor overlooks something? Let’s say, just as an example, the book designer forgets to allow extra margin for page gutters. The proofs come in, and to my untrained eye they look great. I’m happy just to see my words in print! Things may not look as good several weeks later, when the book has been bound and everyone has been paid. In the same way that the buyer of a second-hand car first has it evaluated by a mechanic, newbie self-publishers might consider turning to an independent expert for confirmation that all is as it should be.


Think Long And Hard About Whether A Print Edition Makes Sense

Personally, I still prefer to read printed books. On the other hand, when buying a title that I’m likely to read only once, especially one by an unproven author, I tend to gravitate toward less-expensive Kindle editions. Buyers in general seem to be doing likewise. Perhaps it’s because times are hard, economically, or maybe readers actually prefer ebooks now. Don’t misunderstand: I’m thrilled to see people buying my title in Kindle or Nook. It’s doing rather well in that format. But two pallets of perfectly good printed copies—the remainder of a print run that my first advisor thought was modest—are still catching dust in the distributor’s warehouse. Sooner or later I’ll have to make a painful decision about them.


There Isn’t Necessarily Much Correlation Between Publicity And Sales

I’ve lost count of the media interviews in which I spread the word about my book’s existence. Some were with big-city radio hosts, often with active call-in audiences. Some were podcasts that remain accessible today. (TV interviews would have involved travel to far-flung studios, which was outside my budget.) Those exercises were great fun, but I have no evidence that they led to a single sale.


Know That There Is A Vigorous Industry Of People Selling Dubious Advice

A new author has given birth to something important and wants very much to see it succeed in the world. A plummeting Amazon sales rank suggests that maybe it’s not. The impulse to get busy is understandable, and unsolicited emails can be tempting when they promote webinars on how to turn your dud into a bestseller. I don’t know how so many self-styled experts found out that I’d joined the ranks of self-published authors. I listened to a lot of their pitches and actually parted with money a time or two. The idea was to get some unconventional trick for generating buzz via social media, or optimizing an Amazon sales page, or improving SEO. Such presentations can be interesting. The product behind them tends to be pricey and in my experience not worth the money.


Remember To Take Pride In Having A Published Work!

Some factors are beyond an author/publisher’s control, but great value remains in having done the best job possible. This may fall in the category of things known intellectually to be true that nevertheless fail to provide comfort. But I recommend resolving to take comfort anyway, in having seen the project through to completion, even if the world fails to perceive its value. If no one ever read my memoir, the act of writing it kept me sane and healthy during difficult years, and led to insights that otherwise would have escaped me. The writer writes (Alfred Kazin says) to teach himself. That is enough. That is a lot.




Stephen Gallup is the author of What About the Boy? A Father’s Pledge to His Disabled Son, a memoir that is currently being adapted to film. He blogs at fatherspledge.com.