Self-publishing a novel!
Below is a run-through of my self-publishing journey, including some of the key decisions involved and important things I've learnt. I also provide some thoughts on my answer to the question: 'What does success look like for a self-published author?'
I’ve been working on a novel since 2016. It originally started out as a novella (and a short one at that [20K words]) but I added chapters, left it alone a while, added more, left it, went to uni, came back to it, and it’s now an eighty-thousand-word novel that around ten people have read. It’s been professionally appraised (I paid five-hundred quid for that) and my creative writing tutor at uni liked it. I’ve seen each of those eighty-thousand words approximately eighty-thousand times. I’ve done everything I can with that novel and I will definitely get it out there, one way or another. I have tried so hard to do this the ‘traditional way’ – sifting through agencies and individual agents, drawing up a shortlist, sending to just a few at a time with a tailored cover letter that I’ve sometimes spent an entire weekend working on … each. And I’ve had a few rejections – most of which took months to reach me – and lots of non-responses. Agents are extremely busy and many already have loads of clients, so I understand delays and, to an extent, when they don’t respond. But as an unknown author it’s absolutely crushing, at times, trying to find representation.
With Love in a Lost Year I wanted to bypass that wait and rejection. I believed in the novel and felt the content would be more relevant while the country was still in, or just out of, lockdown. So self-publishing was an obvious choice. I didn’t realise how much thought would have to go into how to self-publish and with which company. It took about a month of research – reading self-publishing blogs on my lunchbreak and watching comparison videos on YouTube before bed most nights – to reach my conclusion.
After initially wanting to avoid Amazon for various reasons, including my dislike for the way they try to make Prime seem a necessary purchase and, with the case of my dad, actually duping customers into continuing subscriptions even after they’ve tried to end them, I eventually sold out. Their market share of the book industry is too great to ignore, plus they offer ebook and print-on-demand services (where they don't do a mass print run and instead print a single copy each time an order comes in), which is what I was looking for so as not to be left with a stack of unsold novels in a box at the foot of my bed (though I think there is something romantic in it, the practicality and cost prevented me from taking that route). As someone who tends to get overwhelmed with organising and keeping track of lots of things at once, I also liked that with Amazon you keep everything in one place – the marketplace for your book, manuscript upload, sales data, the lot. In many respects it’s far easier than with other companies. For example, the tax form for receiving sales from the USA when publishing through one of the other big self-publishing companies, IngramSpark, is, so I read, around eight confusing pages long. On Amazon it’s just a few questions and you’re sorted in five minutes. The interface was also easy to navigate when uploading the book, though I have to give enormous credit to Seb, not only for his breathtaking cover design, but for being on hand for adjustments that needed to be made as I was trying to upload the cover and manuscript (in most circumstances, Amazon KDP gives instant feedback on why a cover or manuscript file has not been accepted or displays incorrectly, meaning you can amend it and try to reupload instantly). After putting everything into getting the manuscript where I wanted it, the ease of making that transition to getting the novel published with Amazon was something that really appealed to me. By using the Amazon KDP service and Reedsy, a huge online writing advice and editorial service marketplace, I was able to get my novel turned around in good time.
But I didn’t rush any of it. I think there is sometimes a bit of a lingering misconception that self-publishers just want their work out there and are willing to compromise quality to that end. I didn’t feel that at all. I think every self-published author will tell you the same. After writing the first draft, leaving it a while, editing the whole thing, editing specific parts, editing the whole thing, leaving it, editing it again, etc., once the manuscript was in what I felt was good shape, my role changed from writer to project manager: finding a cover designer, approaching potential copy-editors on Reedsy, asking friends from home and university to read it, collating their feedback, waiting for professional edits to come back, conversing with Seb over cover ideas and then edits. And, between all these steps, I was editing the manuscript even more. It was completely exhausting, but by allowing that mindset change from writer to project manager, I put more of a business head on, researching trends in things like book titles, cover art colours, and where to market. I tried to use the disappointing responses and lack of responses from agents over my other novel to my advantage; whenever I felt overwhelmed, I thought of all the effort I’ve put into that other manuscript to no avail (so far) and felt a wave of determination sweep through me, providing added impetus to continue on Love in a Lost Year. And, after initial doubts and worries over my drive and decision-making ability, I enjoyed this process, the ‘project management’ side.
Collaborations formed a huge part of this enjoyment. A Word document manuscript is now a work of literature floating around in the public domain; I could not have done this alone. What’s more, I wouldn’t have wanted to. Getting people involved at stages of production gives you confidence as a writer – I feel it’s something especially important with self-publishing. They might tell you a certain part of the book sucks, but that’s fine – that’s what you want – it helps you improve it before others buy the book and read it and say it sucks too. It also invests people in the outcome. That might sound cold, but I mean it in that when people have helped you, e.g. by reading the manuscript, they’re likely to nudge their friends in its direction or share it on social media, since they’ve had a hand in its development. That’s not to say I wanted those people to help me achieve more sales, that’s completely not it at all. It’s about doing the project justice, allowing that piece of work some space to grow and to create a buzz around it, to let those who might genuinely be interested in what it has to say aware of its existence.
I’ve thought a lot about this and whether the project overall has been a ‘success’ and the answer, for me, is a resounding yes. I’ve learnt so much about the business of self-publishing and publishing more generally, I’m really happy with the number of copies sold so far, and it’s given me a footing from which I can continue to try to build a writing career. But mostly it’s the relationships along the way that have made it successful – strengthened with friends, new ones on social media, and generally feeling closer to a community of readers and writers. I feel my marketing skills leave much to be desired – I’ve basically just approached it through Instagram and relied on word-of-mouth – but I really hate self-promotion. As a naturally reticent person, it’s hard to say, ‘Hey, I’m great, read my book,’ and though I know that’s not exactly what marketing is about, and you have to give something as well as promoting – that shared value idea – and that most posts (according to some marketing blogs) shouldn’t be about you or your product, I still struggle to shake off that feeling of being overbearing and annoying and a bit pushy. Total honesty: the marketing aspect, as much as I’ve enjoyed it more than I thought, has also sometimes given me tremendous bouts of anxiety. When I post anything – and I really do mean anything – I have to do something to get away immediately afterwards. I almost always turn off my phone and shutdown my laptop, then go for a walk or run or head to Tesco to browse the reductions. If I stay on my device, I constantly look at my post, hoping for likes and comments, wondering why I don’t get more, wishing I was smarter, funnier, or just ‘better’ at social media. By giving myself that time to get away for a bit afterwards, I give myself space in which to consider the bigger picture and why I’ve written a book and why I want people to read it. Suddenly that one post becomes a tiny thing and I’m grateful for every single like it gets.
So, that’s one source of anxiety covered, but it’s the tip of the iceberg. If having your writing in the public domain wasn’t already a massive reason to overthink and allow self-doubt to seep in, there’s that other huge source: ratings. I’m enormously grateful to people for reviewing and rating my work, and most have been great. Really humbling, quite overwhelming; I’m so flattered and happy. But as a sensitive person, I really feel the bad ratings – I think most writers do; it’s something I guess we can only learn to deal with better – but as an empath and people-pleaser as well, I not only doubt my work when I see a bad rating, I also feel for that reader. It’s a feeling that I’ve let them down: they’ve purchased my book, spent a few hours of their life reading it, and haven’t enjoyed that time. They’ve given me a form of payment, entrusted me to provide them with entertainment or a certain good feeling; they’ve given me so much, but haven’t felt like they’ve gained a lot in return. That, to me, feels like failure. It’s an irrational way of thinking, since everyone has different tastes and even amazing books like The White Tiger have thousands of one- and two-star ratings on Goodreads (seriously, how?), and (as of writing this) my star-ratings on Amazon and Goodreads are doing really well. But for me this is one area where self-publishing feels lonely. If you’ve had your novel picked up by an agent and printed by a publisher, you’ve had so much professional input and backing that I imagine you can shrug off bad ratings; industry experts have said your book is good, screw the individuals who don’t like it. But when publishing yourself, you don’t have that huge amount of professional backing. Friends and family can be great critics – I’m so lucky to have had some seriously good, critical feedback and praise – but inevitably some don’t want to hurt your feelings by saying they don’t like your work or certain parts of it. Learning to deal with bad ratings is something I’m sure I’ll get better at – as more reviews and ratings come in, I’ll just have to!
Sometimes, particularly when these anxieties are biting hard, that consideration of the novel’s successfulness extends into whether this project was worth it as a whole. I’ve lost countless hours of sleep, it will be a minor miracle if I breakeven, and with the total amount of time spent I could have instead trained so hard that I’d by now be getting paid to play Rocket League or learned how to cook a soufflé, baked Alaska, and beef wellington all in the same oven. Answer: I don’t want to reuse the phrase ‘resounding yes’, and anyway that’s not quite strong enough, so let me be clear: hell fucking yes, it’s been worth it. Why? There’s a novel, available in many countries across the globe (Amazon just added Australia to their print-on-demand service), with my name on it. My name! To hold the book you’ve poured so much of your life into is as great a feeling as they say, but it’s also amazing to be able to search your book title or your name in Amazon and be presented with the novel. I’m still not used to that feeling. Still, none of these are the main reasons it’s been worth it. The connections made and people I’ve worked with and spoken to come close. But the very best reason – the thing that makes it all worthwhile – is the heartfelt reviews and personal messages; people letting you know that they’re read it and it really struck a chord with them. These little indicators that your work has positively affected somebody, and that you’ve found your audience for this piece of work, make it all worthwhile. You can’t write a book that everyone in the world will like. I once thought that was possible, but it is not. But receiving these messages is a great feeling. It’s the best kind of validation, truly overwhelming, and, for me – above sales, money, anything like that – it’s the true indicator of success.
If anyone reading this is considering self-publishing, go for it! Also, ask me anything – I’m really happy to help. Thanks so much for reading this.
For those interested, here is a link to Love in a Lost Year.
Other things to note!
My total spend: roughly £1,250 (as of 31st May; this will vary wildly for different authors depending on services chosen, marketing techniques, etc). That covers copy-edits, cover design, proof copies, copies purchased for giveaways and reviews, postage for sending those copies, ISBN and barcode, adding to promotions to some social media posts.
Book dimensions can be confusing! I read loads of self-publishing blogs and most said standard paperback novel sizes are 6' x 9' and 5' x 8'. This seemed strange, since I'd measured the novels on my bookshelf and none were either of these, but I figured with trimming and stuff maybe one of those was correct. I found out a bit later that 6' x 9' is the standard for hardbacks or US paperbacks, so I ordered a 5' x 8' for my proof. When it arrived I immediately knew it was too narrow: compared to other paperback novels on my shelf, too tall and not wide enough. So I got my ruler out again, changed the dimensions, and this time it worked out. The dimensions I used were 5.06" x 7.81" (12.85cm x 19.84cm). Some blogs did mention this as one of the standard UK sizes, but very few. I really don't know why it was so difficult to find out this piece of information, since it seems absolutely crucial to the layout of the book and the reading experience, but it really was tricky to find out! If you're planning on self-publishing I'd advise you to measure books on your shelf to find the right dimensions for the type of book you're putting out, but for UK novels, try 5.06" x 7.81" (12.85cm x 19.84cm)!
A final note on Amazon print quality. Honestly, I think overall it's fantastic. That they can print a single book at a time is amazing to me. The interior text and paper quality are incredible imo. As is the cover ... mostly. My one gripe with the quality is I did have some issues with spine misalignment. Thankfully this mainly seemed to occur with proofs and author copies. Not sure why. Most of them were absolutely fine, and it wasn't a major thing (see image) and probably something I noticed more than most since I was looking for flaws. I just hope it hasn't been an issue with the paperbacks people have bought!