5 Lessons From a Proud Self-Published Author

Here's what happened instead on my path to being a published writer.
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I wrote a novel as a teenager.

In that combination of arrogance and ignorance that teenagers excel at, I thought it was a masterpiece. Destined to make me a literary prodigy. I envisioned sending out the book to "an agency" -- I wasn't sure what that was exactly but I knew it would probably be in a tall building in New York City -- and then I would get a phone call to come to their offices. A woman in a power suit would hand me a packet of papers -- a "contract" -- and then give me a check. The next day my book would appear in every bookstore in America.

Even then, around 1992, that wasn't quite how the publishing process worked. And now, nearly 25 years later, as anyone who has even a minuscule level of knowledge about the publishing industry knows, that daydream is even more of a fantasy.

Here's what happened instead on my path to being a published writer:
  • I worked in education and research before getting a doctorate.
  • I decided that I wanted to concentrate on freelance writing, possibly publishing my dissertation as a book, instead of heading into academia.
  • I learned about the power and necessity of the "writer's platform": a combination of social media involvement, blogging, and general online presence.
  • I started a blog that I enjoyed and made a lot of online connections with other writers and academics in my field.
  • I started a blogging partnership with another blogger about female friendship. We posted essays and stories on our collaborative blog from female writers about friendships that have shaped their lives.
  • We compiled these essays, as well as many others, into an anthology. We got several popular bloggers, experts, and authors, including Scary Mommy's Jill Smokler, to submit pieces. Then we self-published it.
  • Now we're selling our book -- The HerStories Project: Women Explore the Joy, Pain, and Power of Female Friendship -- on Amazon and at book events and in stores.

This is not the path that I expected, and it's certainly not for everyone. But it worked for us because we knew that as new writers, it would be very challenging to find an agent or a publisher for a project like this. We also knew that it was especially hard to publish anthologies. We were also attracted to self-publishing because we could find out whether readers were interested in these types of stories quickly, without the years of waiting for a far off publishing date.

Here's what we've learned over the last six months:
  1. There are no short cuts. Every project is different, but -- despite the promises of how-to books found online -- you cannot write and publish a high-quality book in a weekend. Or a week. Or a month. Several months to a year is more realistic, yes, even for self-published books, especially if it's your first try.
  2. Cover design is everything. This was stressed to us over and over. You do not want your cover to look self-published. I'm not sure what that means exactly -- the "self-published look" -- but it's sort of like pornography, I guess; you know it when you see it. We researched a lot of design options, but never for a second considered doing it ourselves. As many of our online friends know, our cover design went through many iterations, driving our cover designer crazy, and it was hard to listen to critical feedback. Which leads me to our next lesson....
  3. Get lots and lots of outside opinions. When you're self-publishing a book, even with a partner, it's really easy to live inside your own little bubble. Getting outside help with editing is a no-brainer; that's not optional at all. But you need others' opinions about lots of other facets of your book. In addition to our cover design, we got outside feedback about our introduction, our title, our book's organization, our marketing strategy.... And we tried hard not to be thin-skinned.
  4. Embrace learning new technologies and writing platforms. If you want to try self-publishing, knowing Microsoft Word is probably not enough. It's incredibly helpful to have an organizational tool for putting together your book and formatting it that's much more sophisticated and versatile than Microsoft Word, particularly if you're working with other authors. We used PressBooks, which I strongly recommend, particularly if you're a blogger, since it uses the WordPress framework. PressBooks is a book publishing tool; you put in your content -- in a way similar to adding blog posts -- and choose a theme. Then PressBooks can export it automatically into formats suitable for paperback book and e-book creation. And it's free! At least until your book is ready to export and then you have to pay to remove the PressBooks watermark off your book. Alternatively, lots of other writers use Scrivener, another software tool for authors, and I tried that out and love it too.
  5. Figure out your marketing strategy before you hit "publish." Most of the work of a self-published author happens after the book arrives in the mail, or on Amazon's shelves. Getting readers to find and purchase your book is hard work, even if you have an established social media platform.

Would I do it again? Traditional publication is still our ultimate goal, but I don't regret self-publishing. There is nothing better than holding a book that you helped to create in your hands and knowing that it's your best work.

Have you self-published? What was your experience like?

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