Is self-publishing a novel the right way to go?
Self-publishing, and publishing in general, is an incredibly competitive industry. To do it right costs a lot of time and money, with little chance of ever making a profit. A bit of a negative start to this post, I know, but that’s the truth of it. Even so, I think self-publishing a novel is the right path to take as an author. Unless, of course, a publisher offers you a multimillion-pound/dollar book deal. Then it might be a good idea to ignore me and go the traditional publishing route.
Personally, I’ve always wanted to be an indie author and self-publish my writing. And although making a fortune, or even a living from my writing would be wonderful, money is not my driving force. Unlike some authors who resort to self-publishing only after wallpapering their house with rejection letters, the manuscript for Ama has never graced the desk of an agent or publisher, nor will any of my future novels. I love creative writing and enjoy the process of self-publishing.
The downside of self-publishing a novel
There are aspects of traditional publishing that you will find hard to achieve if you self-publish. For example, if you want to see your novel on a shelf at your local book store, then traditional publishing is the path you have to take because, unfortunately, a self-published novel is highly unlikely to ever appear on the high-street. Having said that, a paperback copy of Ama did find its way onto a shelf in a charity shop in Ireland (the finder sent me an email), which I thought was pretty cool. At least my novel wasn’t found in a bargain bin.
The indie author is in control of the publishing process
I hate the idea of someone else deciding whether or not my novel should see the light of day, or hearing a publisher say something like, “Sorry, it’s good, but not for us.” Or worse still, “It’s perfect, but can you change this bit?”.
Hell no! The story is exactly how it should be, so get your damn hands off my novel.
Anyway, I thought I would share some of the things I’ve learned on my journey as an indie author; specifically, the various self-publishing tools that help me turn an idea for a novel into reality. These are the tools I used to write and self-publish my horror novel Ama, and also the tools I use for my current projects.
Nothing about self-publishing is set in stone
Obviously every author, indie or not, is different and have their own opinions and preferences on the subject of creative writing and publishing. What works for me might not work for you. You may not even need some of the things I mention below. So make up your own mind about what is needed and useful to help you become a successful indie author. By successful, I mean publishing a novel of quality, not necessarily gaining mountains of cash from selling it.
I’m no expert on creative writing or self-publishing but I know a bit
Although I’ve not made a million (Yet) from my writing and I’ll freely admit that I’m no expert, I have gained some knowledge, dare I say wisdom, along the way. So I’ve also included some advice on the subject of creative writing and self-publishing.
Tea and bickies at the ready?
This is quite a long post, so before you start reading I recommend making yourself a cuppa with some bickies at the ready. And if you’re reading this on a mobile phone, sorry, your thumb is probably going to ache from all the scrolling.
These writing and self-publishing tools are free
LibreOffice has everything you need to write a novel and get it ready for publishing
When I started to seriously consider publishing my writing, I bought Microsoft Office Writer, because I thought and had read that I needed to use that particular piece of software to bring my novel up to a professional standard. Well, I didn’t.
LibreOffice does everything Microsoft Office does, including the wordprocessor bit, and in my humble opinion, it does it a helluva lot better. And it’s completely free, which is a happy bonus. Take me to the LibreOffice website >>>
Useful stuff from the big G
Sign up for a Google account (If you don’t already have an account with the big G), then go to the main Google search page. In the top righthand corner, you will see the ‘Google Apps’ button next to your profile picture. Click it and a drop-down list will appear. Somewhere in the list will be your Drive, Docs, Keep, and Photos (see below for more about these). I say ‘somewhere in the list’ because you can move them around, so my list won’t be in the same order as your list.
Google Drive is arguably the best cloud-based backup
Backup your stuff! Trust me, this needs to become your mantra. Backing everything up to a USB drive is fine and dandy, and something you should be doing already, but you should also think about using a cloud-based backup.
While making the book trailer for Ama I had video files stored on my hard drive, plus an automatic backup to a secondary drive, and a backup to a USB flash drive, and I still managed to lose some of my work. How the hell could that possibly happen, you may ask. Well, I accidentally deleted some original files, the automatic backup decided not to work that day, and the USB drive became corrupted. So yeah, bitter experience. I now keep multiple independent backups of everything. One of my weapons of choice is Google Drive.
Google Docs for writing while on the go
Although a relatively simple word processor, compared to the likes of LibreOffice, it is damn useful whenever I’m out and about and need to scratch my writer’s itch. When I get home, I simply copy and paste my work into LibreOffice.
Google Keep helps to bring order to the chaos
Google Keep helps organise story ideas and stay on track during the publishing process. Think of it as stick-it notes on steroids.
Google Photos is another way to backup
As well as being an incredibly useful way to store the multitude of photos we all take these days, Google Photos is another way to backup. Unlike the free storage capacity for Google Drive, Google Photos does not have a limit on the amount of cloud storage you can use. As long as the ‘Upload size for photos and video’ is set to ‘High quality (free unlimited storage)’ in the settings, you can snap away to your heart’s content. Yes, videos can also be uploaded to Google Photos. It’s a great way to store, organise, and make simple edits to potential book cover images and store video files for later use in a book trailer.
Audacity can help you publish an audiobook
I use Audacity to edit the audio for my website; narration for my poems, short stories, etc. It’s also a useful tool for producing the audio for podcasts (something I’m thinking of getting into) and audiobooks (If you’re brave enough to attempt to produce your own audiobook). Once the various settings and filters are mastered, it is possible to create professional-quality recordings. Obviously a decent mic and recording setup is needed to get the best out of Audacity. Take me to the Audacity website >>>
GIMP is all you need to create a professional quality book cover
Why get someone else to make the cover for your book when you can have fun crafting it yourself. Once you’ve got the images you want to use, GIMP is all you need to produce a book cover that wouldn’t look out of place on a shelf at your local book shop. I used GIMP to create the final artwork for the cover (paperback, ebook, and audiobook) of my novel. Take me to the GIMP website >>>
OpenShot makes creating a book trailer simple
Creating a book trailer for a novel is a fantastic way to garner interest, and OpenShot makes the whole process an easy task. Just drag and drop video files and audio files onto the timeline, add transitions and effects, then let the program turn all the elements into an awesome book trailer. Okay, so the awesomeness of the book trailer ultimately depends on your creative flair. Take me to the OpenShot website >>>
Krita is a sophisticated art program
Are you writing a children’s book or graphic novel? Then you will probably love Krita. It’s a very sophisticated art program that enables you to create drawings and paintings on the screen with the same finesse as on paper and canvas. Combine Krita with a graphics tablet and you’ll be able to produce some pretty impressive artwork (Skills as an artist will help, of course). Take me to the Krita website >>>
Blender can bring Hollywood quality effects to a book trailer
Do you want to add Hollywood quality special effects to your book trailer? Then Blender is what you need. Blender has a very steep learning curve but if you put the time in and practice, you will be able to create some stunning visuals. I will warn you though, once you get into Blender, hours of your life will disappear without you noticing. The various scenes in the Ama book trailer were made using Blender. Take me to the Blender website >>>
MuseScore helps add music to a book trailer
Fancy adding music to your book trailer? MuseScore enables you to compose music, assign various instruments, and then turn it into audio. Before I decided on using an excerpt from the audiobook, I messed around with the idea of having a film score for the Ama book trailer. As I soon realised, being able to read and write music is a helpful skill, if you want to get the best out of MuseScore. Take me to the MuseScore website >>>
The internet can be your knowledgeable friend, but also an evil sponge
Hone your creative skills
Every self-publishing tool I’ve mentioned in this post will have loads of tutorials and help forums online to help you learn how to use them effectively. There are real-world books, of course, but technology moves so fast that they will probably be out of date by the time you get them home.
Research for your novel is easy and the answers are a click away
- Need a name for your character, but are struggling to think of a good one? Then simply go to one of the many websites for baby names.
- Are you writing about a location that you’ve never been to? Then Google Earth, Google Maps, and Google Street View might help.
- Need to know what a word means or expand your vocabulary but can’t be bothered to search your dictionary or thesaurus? Then type the word into Google Search with ‘def’ at the end, for example, ‘Splendiferous def’.
- Wikipedia is a good online tool to use when researching just about anything, but be careful. Always try to confirm what Wikipedia has to say by checking it against a different source.
Obviously this list could go on ad infinitum, so I will stop here. The point is that the information you seek is out there, somewhere. Just be discerning about where you get it and what you believe.
Create an author website
If you’re a self-publishing author, you need to have a website. Thankfully, creating a simple website no longer requires technical knowledge or a deep understanding of HTML, and there are plenty of ways to do it. Personally, I’ve gone for a paid service with GoDaddy because I wanted some additional features, but in the past DanielMacKillican.com has run on various free services.
There are many options out there that will enable you to create a website or blog for free, two that spring to mind are WordPress and Blogger. Although a bit more complicated to set up, you can also host a website on your Google Drive.
Goodreads Author Page
Once you’ve published your novel on Amazon, whip over to Goodreads and create an Author Page. It doesn’t matter that you’re self-published, but you do need to have at least one published book before Goodreads will let you have an Author Page. Have a look at what other authors have done on Goodreads, decide what you like, then spend some time making your Author Page look good. Here’s my Goodreads persona >>>
YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and other potential headaches
Okay, I’ll say right off the bat, I detest Facebook and Twitter so deleted both accounts, and YouTube proved to be a complete pain in the arse too. I used to have the video versions of my poems, short stories, and the complete audiobook version of Ama on YouTube, but then things went a bit awry. I’m not going to bore you with all the details, as they were many and varied. I did contact YouTube (six times) about the problems I was having, yet never received the slightest response from them. So I removed the lot and closed my channel. I’ve decided to host all my stuff myself on this website from now on. Needless to say, apart from Goodreads, you won’t find me on social media anymore.
The choice of places to promote and sell a novel is huge if you’re a social media butterfly
There are loads of other social media platforms out there; Instagram, Reddit, etc., etc. And I’ve tried quite a few of them in my time, to varying degrees of success. Yes, I’ve had a lot of people buy a copy of my novel after they found me on social media, which was cool and I enjoyed reading what they thought of it, but social media is an evil sponge, soaking up hours of your life with very little in return.
To be honest, I’m not much of a social butterfly anyway. In fact, I’m an aspiring recluse, so stand little chance with social media from the get-go. But you might thrive on social media and love all the interaction, so give it a go.
If you do plan to use social media to promote your self-published novel, here’s my advice, for what it’s worth.
Don’t be shy about your author-name
Use your real name or pen name, not some vague and meaningless handle. Basically, the name you want folks to associate with your writing. Then use that name on all of your social media accounts, so there is no confusion when people try to find you and your work.
Get to the point within your author bio
Craft your bio so people know quickly what you do and what you’re about. Try to be witty but not pretentious. If you are self-publishing, be aware that there is still a certain amount of snobbery when it comes to publishing a novel; some people think a novel can’t be any good unless it’s published by a bricks-and-mortar publishing house. If this concerns you, simply use ‘author’ instead of ‘indie author’, and just leave out any reference to self-publishing.
Of course, if someone asks you directly if you’re an indie author, self-publishing your novel, then tell the truth and be proud of it. Just leave it out of your bio. Personally, I couldn’t care less about the snobs, so have never hidden away from the fact that I’m an indie author and my novel is self-published.
Be consistent with your author identity
Use the same photograph of yourself (not a logo) for all of your various profiles, and spend some time choosing a good picture. Try to make it a closeup headshot, since the space for your profile picture is usually quite small (You don’t want to force people to squint to see you). If you ever want to update your profile picture, make sure you change it on every social media account.
Learn from other writers and authors, especially other indie authors who are also playing the self-publishing game
Interact with other writers, authors, and creative types, but don’t get into pointless arguments (all online arguments are pointless). You can sit back with a bowl of popcorn and watch disagreements play out, which can be quite amusing. But, no matter who is right or how eloquently they put their point across, both sides usually come away from the confrontation looking stupid.
Be social, it’s social media after all
Interact with readers of your work, but again, don’t get into arguments. No matter how good your story is, or how well written it is, there will still be folks who hate it. Learn to spot the trolls and simply walk away, because they crave the satisfaction of watching you bite, don’t fall for it. On the other hand, if someone is giving you constructive criticism, take it onboard graciously, you can always throw it back over the side later if you don’t agree.
Don’t be a bore
Talk about your novel but don’t fill your feed with ‘Buy my book’ posts, you will look desperate and fade into the background noise. Craft one post that advertises your novel, include links to where people can get it, and pin it to the top of your feed. Then move on.
Time is precious, so don’t feel guilty about saying ‘no’
If like me, you get requests to read and comment on other peoples work, I suggest you politely decline, because some people will take the piss and expect you to edit or rewrite their entire work (Yes, believe it or not, I did receive a few requests to do this for free via Twitter and Facebook). This is not the same as another author asking for a review swap, something else I don’t agree with.
‘I’ll review yours if you review mine’, really? And it will be an honest review will it? So, what if you think my work is good but I think yours is crap? Will you still give mine a glowing review and a 5-Star thumbs up?
Have you ever bought a book from Amazon because it had hundreds or even thousands of 4 and 5-star reviews, then, after reading it, wondered, “Why the absolute fuck has this tripe been given such a high rating?” Well, now you know.
Focus on your genre
Focus on what you write about, your genre. Talk about the many and varied aspects of it, but stick to the point. For example, don’t post stuff about floristry if you write fetish fiction. Unless, of course, flowers are an integral part of the sex fantasies in your stories. The mind boggles…
There be weirdos out there
And finally, be careful about the information you put out there because there be weirdos watching you. Keep your work separate from your personal life. It doesn’t matter what your privacy settings say, you will be playing a very dangerous game if there is the slightest risk of letting strangers into your personal life. Before you post anything, think about this:
Would you walk up to a complete stranger who is mumbling to himself about how to remove the bloodstains from his carpet, and then tell/show him what you’re about to publish online?
These self-publishing tools will cost ya some cold hard cash
Useful books for creative writing and self-publishing
This may be just a personal thing, but if you’re a writer, I think a good dictionary and thesaurus is something you should already have on your bookshelf. Yes, there are online versions which are perfectly fine and useful, but there’s something about owning a couple of monster-sized books that define the language you speak. I recommend the Oxford Dictionary of English and the Oxford Thesaurus of English.
I also recommend getting a copy of New Hart’s Rules which helps with correct capitalization, hyphenation, punctuation, and many other aspects of the written English language.
A domain name for the digital you
You may not want to create a website, but I highly recommend that you buy the domain name (.co.uk, .com, etc.) that matches your author or pen name. You can always point your domain name at your social media profile, Goodreads profile, or anything else about you that’s on the internet.
If your self-publishing adventure is fruitful and you become famous, you don’t want to have to pay some extortionate price for that domain name down the line, because someone else watched you climb the ladder and registered it before you.
Smartphone with a large screen
A smartphone is an incredibly useful tool for any writer, I use and highly recommend the Google Pixel 3a XL. All of the Google stuff I’ve mentioned in this post runs on it, so I no longer have to lug my laptop around with me when I’m away from my desk. When I have a moment of inspiration and need to write it down before shiny things make me forget, I just whip it out and start frantically making notes. I do a lot of work on my Pixel phone, which is why I specify the ‘XL’ bit. The bigger the better when trying to craft chapter after chapter on a mobile phone.
Final thoughts on creative writing and self-publishing
Inspiration for creative writing
Inspiration for stories are everywhere, you just have to open your eyes and ears and close your mouth. Go to your local city centre, grab a coffee and find a place to perch, then watch the world go by. In no time potential characters and stories will walk by. Try to work out who these people are and what they’re about. What secrets do they hide? What weighs heavy on their mind? If you can hear them talking, how do they speak and what is their candour?
Obviously you don’t know the real story of these strangers lives, and nor should you. If you do talk to anyone, try to say as little as possible about yourself, let them lead the conversation. The point is to find seeds for a story, find characters, then let your imagination wander.
Let the dead tell their story
Another place to go to find inspiration for a good story is a graveyard, the older the better. Yes, I know, it sounds a bit macabre. But within the peaceful confines of a graveyard, the dead will inspire you. Upon the headstones, you will find potential characters names and sometimes even a snippet about their lives. Read the names aloud as you wander, then listen to the whispers as they tell you their stories.
Learn all you can about creative writing and self-publishing, then be yourself
There is a lot of information out there about creative writing and self-publishing, both in real-world books and online. Some of this information is good and useful, while an awful lot is simply rubbish. Creative writing is a personal thing, there is no set way to do it, the same goes for publishing.
Don’t treat anything that someone says about creative writing or how to publish it as gospel, no matter who they are or how successful they may appear to be.
Find all the information you can about writing (both general and creative) and the various ways to publish. Even if you’re self-publishing your novel, try to learn the techniques of the big publishing houses; cover design, how they format their books, how they promote them, etc.
There are countless books, magazines, podcasts, and videos that can help. Make notes, then decide for yourself how you’re going to go about it. Learn from others, but be original.
Don’t do it for the money
If your soul reason for writing a novel is to make a fortune because ‘how hard can it be?’, you are on the road to failure and will probably be taken advantage of by scam artists with get-rich-quick schemes.
Contrary to popular belief, self-publishing to a high standard is not free or cheap. Yes, a lot of the tools I’ve mentioned in this post are free, but having your manuscript edited by someone who knows what they’re doing will cost you a pretty penny, and if you have an audiobook version of your novel produced by a professional voice artist… Whoa! Your bank balance is going to take a hefty hit. I don’t regret doing this myself for the Ama audiobook, because the end result justified the cost, but it wasn’t cheap. By the way, Matthew Lloyd Davies is the talented voice actor who produced the Ama audiobook for me. I found him through ACX (more about ACX later in this post).
Proofreading and editing the manuscript
Do you have a family member or friend who is not afraid to tell it like it is? Great! Let them read the fourth draft of your novel. Why the fourth draft? Because the first draft is for you to transfer the story from your head to the page, the second draft is for you to craft the story, the third draft is for you to edit the story and iron out any mistakes and plot-holes, and the fourth draft is for someone else to give your manuscript an honest appraisal and pick it to pieces.
For reasons that should be obvious, make sure you have absolute trust in this person before you hand over a copy of your unpublished novel.
Ideally, try to find three people to give your work the once over. Ask them to scribble their opinions directly onto the manuscript. Then put it all away and forget about it for about a month. When you come back to it fresh, read through all the comments and start polishing your manuscript.
The Ama manuscript needed some tough love during the editing phase
I deleted and rewrote Ama three times, once around the 50,000-word mark (That was a depressing day). The manuscript was also about 25,000 words longer than the final published version. Welcome to the brutal world of editing.
Some questions to ask yourself while editing a manuscript
- Is it important for the story, or is it waffle? If it’s the latter, remove it.
- Does it deviate onto an irrelevant path? Then get it back on track.
- Is the dialogue stale? Then add some spice.
- Is that a plot hole? If so, fill it.
- Is that lazy writing? If so, be more descriptive.
- Is it boring? Take a break, then rewrite it.
Do you need a professional editor if you’re self-publishing?
Wow! You’ve written a masterpiece that would’ve made Dickens and Hemingway jealous, and you’ve got a PhD. in English literature, and you’ve worked as an editor for half your life. And, just to be absolutely sure, an army of proofreaders have scanned your work for any gremlins that might be hiding away in there. So, why would you need to pay for an editor to take a look at your manuscript?
Don’t let your first self-published novel be your last
Because no matter how keen your eye, somewhere in what you’ve written is a mistake. It will be an obvious mistake, yet you and your proofreaders will never see it, no matter how many times you all read through it. That facepalm error will make you scream and pull your hair out when it’s pointed out to you by some little oik in the review section of Amazon.
Hire a professional editor to glance a critical eye over your manuscript before you publish. Someone who will make your manuscript look like it’s been marked by a vindictive school teacher who has a fetish for red ink.
I practice what I preach
When the manuscript for Ama came back from my editor, Richard Sheehan, I was so glad I decided to get it professionally checked and hired him to do it. There were mistakes I wouldn’t have found if my life depended on it. I also felt like a complete fool because some of the errors he found were so glaringly obvious, they couldn’t have been more obvious if a neon sign pointed to them.
The final edit before you hit that publish button
When your manuscript comes back from your editor, read through all the suggestions and make any needed corrections. You may not agree with everything the editor suggests, but make damn sure you check that you’re right if you’re not going to heed the advice. Once you think you have finished, read through the entire manuscript one more time. I lost track of the number of times I read through the manuscript for Ama before I hit that big, scary, publish button.
Order a paperback proof copy
Before publishing a paperback copy of your novel, I highly recommend ordering a proof copy first, to make sure the final novel will look exactly how you planned. I was very glad I did this because I found numerous problems with the layout that only became apparent when I held the real-deal in my hands.
When, and only when, there is an unwavering smile on your face and you are completely happy with your creation, it’s time to self-publish!
Where to sell a self-published novel
I won’t go into a lot of detail about the process, because it’s been a while since I added my novel to these online shops, and things have probably changed a bit. What I will say is, read the Ts and Cs very carefully, and be absolutely sure you know what you’re doing, before you agree to any exclusivity agreements. The potential royalties and promotional opportunities may look great if your novel is only available through one seller, but do you really want to limit yourself? Personally I like being able to sell my novel anywhere I choose, so am happy to take the lower tier for royalties. Double and triple check everything before you agree to anything. Act in haste, repent at leisure.
If your novel is ready to go, start your self-publishing journey with these platforms
This list is by no means exhaustive. There are many more places you can publish your novel, but these will help you on your way.
- KDP – Create and publish a Kindle ebook and paperback for sale through Amazon.
- ACX – Here you can hire a producer (professional voice actor) to create your audiobook. Then ACX will help you publish and sell the audiobook through Amazon, Audible, and iTunes.
- Barnes & Noble – Create and publish a Nook Book. You can also publish and sell the paperback version of your novel too.
- Google Play Books – Another sales avenue for the ebook version of your novel.
Don’t give up!– Me, to myself, every single day.
It took a long time to write and self-publish my first novel
It took me nine years (off and on) to go from writing the first line of Ama to hitting the publish button on Amazon in 2016. And although I’m optimistic that one day I will be able to devote myself full-time to my writing, I currently need my ‘normal job’ as a self-employed courier to pay the bills. I do make money from the royalties for Ama, but I still have a way to go before I can leave my van to rust. Until then I’ll keep climbing the self-publishing mountain, hoping that one day I’ll be able to sit back and enjoy the view.