How To Self Publish (And Seem Like You're Not)

Writing is a lot like lying. You weave stories that aren’t true and ask people to believe them. So I thought it apropos to market my self-published book around one giant fallacy: that it wasn’t self-published.

Let me explain myself.

It all started with a question: Could a self-published author (I wondered) have the best of both worlds? The freedom to evolve a book “brand,” interact with readers directly, and control every aspect of the creative process—while still endowing that brand with a sense that it was a huge, group effort, with lots of (monetary) support from its editors, PR-people, and other mysterious higher-ups who make the literary world go round?

Given my book’s topic, straddling both worlds made sense. On the one hand, "Unnaturally Green" is intensely personal. It’s about my time understudying the lead role in Wicked as my first-ever professional theater gig, while trying to overcome various coming-of-age challenges (love, career, family). I explore this idea of “greenness”—of being unseasoned, incredulous, and generally floundering all over the place. Which very closely describes my inaugural self-publishing experience.

On the other hand, the book has that stamp of my being part of a huge global phenomenon. To me, "Unnaturally Green" needed to seem of the same world—not endorsed by Wicked, but just as worthy of attention.

Despite my budget ($0) and lack of manpower (just me), the challenge was to create an engaging, immersive experience for potential readers—that was still lovingly homemade.

Quixotic? Yes. Impossible? Nah.

Here is what I did:

1) I set a release date.

Any savvy marketer knows the importance of having everybody mark their calendars. It builds anticipation and gets readers excited.

When self-publishing, however, this kind of temporal exactitude is tricky. If you’re converting your manuscript to an e-book, or printing it through a service like Create Space (I did both), the vagaries of just how long that process will take make it difficult to stipulate a date on which you can say, “It’s ready.” So what did I do?

I guessed. Way early in the game.

For this reason, my timeline became much more accelerated than a conventional publishing house’s. While a typical book deal might go something like: sell the book to a publisher, take a year to work with your editor, release the book; mine looked like: write half the book, declare the release date, have four months to finish and edit. That’s right: on July 19, 2011, I announced that I would publish my book on October 14, 2011. All I had to do was write it.

I completed final edits five weeks prior to go-time, then raced to the finish line like a madwoman—approving proof copies and submitting corrections to my distributors until the last possible moment.

It remains to be seen how well I’ll be able to honor this release date. The book won’t be appearing on bookstore shelves, so October 14 is more symbolic than anything else. Those who pre-order by a certain date (see #2) will receive their copies by the 14th—shipping and handling permitting. Some may get them earlier, some a day or two late. I’ll try to enable my various sales channels (online retailers, e-books through Kindle, Apple, etc.) so that, with their availability lag times of days or weeks, I’ll time it out as best I can.

All in all, my release date is really “(on or around) October 14.” It’s an estimate—but it’s the best I can do, given the constraints.

2) I offered pre-ordering.

I elected Create Space as my print-on-demand service, which means they’ll print and deliver physical copies of "Unnaturally Green" every time somebody orders one online. However, I was bummed to find that it couldn’t accommodate one very important aspect of the sales timeline: pre-ordering.

But, no matter! I decided to oversee the process myself—offering signed copies to anyone who ordered theirs before October 4.

To do this, I gauged initial interest through my mailing list (see #4), estimated how many copies to buy in bulk, and had them shipped to my house. I set up a checkout process through PayPal, and took care of shipping and handling myself.

Admittedly, this was a bit of a headache, and, due to high shipping costs, I could only allow pre-ordering in the U.S. But, on the plus side, I was able to recoup all of my up-front publishing costs in one week, while guaranteeing proactive readers that they’d get their copies as soon as possible.

3) I formed my own industry (and spoke in the plural first person).

Without a support system, I built my own. Several of my closest friends happened to be accomplished writers with editing experience. Two of them assisted me in three rounds of editing, while a third friend performed meticulous copyedits. (It ended up costing me a couple of hundred bucks—but was worth it.)

Meanwhile, with my small but dedicated team assembled, I took the liberty to start using “we” instead of “I” when corresponding with potential readers. Example (email exchange):

Potential Reader: “Do you know if the book will be available in Australia?”

Me: “Hey there! Not entirely sure, but we’re working hard to enable all possible international sales channels!”

No need to shatter my Australian friend’s expectations and reveal that it was just me in sweatpants at my computer, typing away at 3 AM, frantically scouring for their international shipping policy.

As the weeks pressed on, I (we) took this and ran with it, (“We’re working hard to…” “We’re excited to announce…” “We hope you like this latest excerpt…”), and nobody was any the wiser.

4) I generated buzz.

As soon as I announced "Unnaturally Green" online, I created a series of interconnected online resources, interfaces, and opportunities for fans to get involved.

These included, (1) a mailing list, (2) a book website, (3) an author blog, (4) an integrated Facebook fan page, (5) an Unnaturally Green writing contest (“Share your story of a time you felt green; winner(s) get signed copies!”), (6) a book cover poll (“Vote for your favorite cover design!”), (7) an active Twitter account, (8) controlled release of various excerpts, in which fans had to recommend my book to a friend in order to read them, (9) related YouTube videos, including singing tips on how to belt "Wicked" songs.

5) I filmed a book trailer.

Apparently, books these days have trailers, even though most of the time said trailers make no sense. Luckily, my brother is a cinematographer. Together we came up with this (totally random, quasi-professional-looking) book trailer:

At the end of the day, I would recommend my self-publish-and-seem-not-self-published approach to any author who has lots of creative interests, likes to have control over his or her brand, and feels masochistic excitement at the thought of being completely overwhelmed all the time.

Sally forth!

Felicia Ricci is the author of "Unnaturally Green," a memoir about her experience as an understudy for the lead character in the Broadway musical "Wicked." Her book goes on sale October 14.