When writers gather to explore self-publishing, the room fills with angst. As IBPA’s Terry Nathan has said, publishing requires a different skill set than writing.
Recently, I attended an eight-hour Self-Publishing Boot Camp sponsored by the California Writers Club in Sacramento, and led by co-founder Carla King, contributor to the Bowker Self-Published Author blog and PBS MediaShift, and author of two books on self-publishing. By the end of the day, I felt I had absorbed a great deal of wisdom worth sharing, and I hope the highlights that follow will help you.
King, who has trained more than 5,000 writers, publishers, and corporate representatives, offered six suggestions to would-be self-publishers scratching their heads:
- Know your goals.
- Spend time choosing the right publishing path.
- Research companies available to distribute your book before making a decision.
- Buy your own International Standard Book Numbers (ISBNs).
- View good promotion as a byproduct of communication with your “tribe” about common interests.
- Recognize metadata as a top marketing asset.
King finds that authors often aren’t certain of what they aspire to accomplish. Nathan says: “Know what you want before getting started. Is publishing a business or a hobby? If you want to do more than share with friends and family, learn to publish professionally.”
The terrain can be overwhelming. King told Boot Camp attendees, “You’re not going to absorb everything overnight. Expect overload.” Her Self-Publishing Boot Camp Guide for Authors, which she uses in training, deals with e-books, POD books, full-color books, and publishing partners, including copublishers, book packagers, printers, small presses, and literary agents.
Panelists at the Boot Camp included:
John McAlester of PigeonLab talked about e-book/digital formatting and distribution, patiently explaining EPUB and MOBI (Kindle); what Amazon, Apple iBooks, Kobo, and B&N need, and why these are the largest and most important platforms for e-books.
Ron Martinez created the browser-based Aerbook Maker that makes visual books and marketing materials for social networks, noted that the day of traditional publishing defining books has passed. (“You can make a 500,000-word e-book,” King pointed out. “In print, the spine would be a foot wide. I just published an e-book on choosing a first motorcycle. It’s a PDF with images linking to buying sites.”)
Nina Amir, author coach, addressed blogging and social media marketing with a presentation about how to write books from blogs. “Sharing for free is great marketing, and getting beta readers and feedback is easy,” And, King commented, “People do buy the book, even if they’ve seen some of it already.”
Karl Palachuk of Great Little Books Publishing closed the seminar by talking about the business end of successful publishing.
As King noted, it’s important to research publishing options so you can avoid having to backtrack after getting locked into particular tools or services. “Potential content restrictions can result from using certain tools,” Martinez explained. “Books created with iBooks Author are sold on the iBookstore, or given away for free. These books work only in iBooks. A wonderful tool, but with some strings attached. The same goes for bookmaking tools from companies specializing in picture books. Make sure you get your book files and can do what you like with them.”
Amir advised: “Pick a path that feels doable—blogged book, booklet, e-book, whatever. Many authors get stuck thinking of a full-length book and traditional or self-publishing. Move forward with something smaller, manageable. Then pick the next doable path. Keep refining the product, moving up as you go.”
Buying your own ISBNs is a smart choice, King told us, because ownership lets you “make your book portable from one vendor to another.” For example, if an Author Solutions company such as iUniverse, Author House, or Xlibris assigns an ISBN to your book, that company becomes the publisher of record. If you decide later to distribute the book through another company, you’ll need to retire the original ISBN and create another edition with your own ISBN.
“Meantime,” King pointed out, “your book will go through a period of being not found until the original company alters the Bowker MyIdentifiers (ISBN record) for your (their) book and the search engines catch up.”
King recommends acquiring up to five ISBNs per book, since one is required for a print version, and others are required for editions distributed to retailers via various sales channels (think Smashwords, Kindle Direct Publishing, Aerbook Maker). “If you upload the books to retailers yourself, you’ll assign one ISBN to the EPUB and another to the MOBI/Kindle version,” she told attendees. “If you create an audiobook, that’s another. A multimedia version requires still another. Any leftover ISBNs can be used for your next book. If you plan to write more than two books you’ll probably want a package of 100 ISBNs—cheaper than two packages of 10.”
CreateSpace and Ingram Spark are companies King suggested using for POD distribution to major markets. Martinez said the best distributors “simplify your life, get you the broadest reach, provide solid reporting across all retail venues.” And he advised: “Beyond that, understand how and when your distributor will help you take advantage of promotional opportunities, or better yet, help you with promotion and discovery services that put your books in front of prospective readers.”
Panelist Palachuk, author of 11 books, considers the printer a crucial choice. “If the printer is also the distributor, choose one that will get your book into as many distribution channels as possible,” he suggested. “If you have to pay for printing and shipping to take delivery of books and then have to pay to ship to a store/reseller, you won’t have much profit left. Calculate total cost for production and distribution. A distributor who looks expensive at first may be far less expensive when you consider the variables.”
On Marketing and Metadata
King, a motorcycle adventure traveler, joined motorcycle forums early on. “I made friends who have known me a long time now and are happy to tell others about my new books,” she said.. “Establish connections. Be a contributor, share information. Be genuine, become a part of the community. Communicating with your tribe should be fun. Communicating is marketing.”
The easiest marketing, she believes, is passive marketing—setting up a Website, a blog, and social media sites with the right keywords, descriptions, and alt-tags “so that Google can find you. Set up with a Gravatar, an Author Central page (if you have a book), a Facebook Author page, and Google Authorship. Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Pinterest, and LinkedIn are important. Don’t be intimidated. Just visit sites one by one. And get your profile data to point to your Website."
On the subject of metadata, Martinez told us: “We need to expand the definition of metadata to include social metadata: structured information generally stored invisibly on a Web page. It tells social networks what the content on the page is about. It’s used to define ‘entities’ that social networks can then display in pleasing ways in their various timelines. Ideally your book has social metadata telling Facebook and other social networks its title, home page, and an image to show whenever anyone posts a link to or likes this book.”
“There’s no shortcut,” King tells writers thinking about self-publishing. “A disciplined focus saves heartache. More important, there’s no rush. Get your feet wet. Take your time to choose the tools so you get the best book possible for your time and investment. You’ll get there!”
Attendee Daniel Bapka offered another encouraging observation, which summed up the thoughts of many: “Feelings of self-doubt are perfectly normal. We also all need to remember that we’re not alone.”