How much “self” to put in “self-publishing”?

From Scott:

The advent of online self-publishing, especially now that there is a rush to publish on Amazon, has resolved many issues authors face, only to create new ones. Under the traditional system, an author’s sole concern was producing the best work possible. Yes, to some extent editing fell upon the author’s shoulders. But if the manuscript was accepted by a publishing house, the publisher put the book through a complete editing process, including content and line editing. The publisher has people on staff who, with varying amounts of author input, will handle every step of the publishing process.

This is not the case when you self-publish. Amazon doesn’t check the quality of your work, so you bear the full weight of responsibility for the finished product. Yes, you could write a novel, check it over once or twice, slap together some cheap cover art, and call it a book. But your sales will suffer, an effect that will carry over toward any future releases you may have. Attention to detail at every phase of the process is crucial.

The question then becomes not whether you should put extensive time and effort into the final stages of your project, but whether to go it alone. Should you handle the entire process by yourself? Or should you ask a friend or two to help out? Another possibility: you could pay someone to do it for you. Using professional editing, formatting, and artwork resources is typically the path most likely to produce a spectacular result, but it can get expensive. You need to weigh investment versus return. How many copies do you reasonably expect to sell? If you are looking at selling 300 copies, at $2 royalties per book, it wouldn’t make sense to pay $2,000 to an editor to fine-tune your novel. Another hazard is the quality of the work being done by the professional service you employ. How do you know if this person will do a better job than you would have?

Let’s look at each phase independently. After all, it is entirely feasible that you might handle part of the process on your own and pay someone to do another. The obvious place to start is editing. I’ve purchased a number of books, some traditionally published and some self-published, where the author experienced an epic fail in the editing department. And just like any other reader, I’ll never buy anything by those authors again.

Currently, I handle a lot of my own editing. As I finish each chapter, I read through it a few times to find typographical errors. Once I finish the novel, I reread it a few times. I check for continuity, questions left unanswered, and conflicts that present an impossible situation. For example, in one novel I had split my main characters into two different groups. One particular character ended up in both groups—something most readers would have caught.

The problem is that no one can completely edit their own work. You need multiple perspectives to catch those fatal flaws. That’s where Rick Taubold and his “Novel Ideas” online group at Zoetrope.com comes in. I can post excerpts of my work in the office, and other members will critique it for me. Acting as my potential readers, they catch the mistakes that slip past me. And best of all, there is no monetary fee for this. We pay for the help we receive by providing the same help to others in the office.

This is an excellent tool, and I’m very lucky to be a part of it. Most readers’ groups, whether online or in person, tend to fall into one of two categories. On the one hand, you tend to find a bunch of cheerleaders. They’ll make you feel good about your work, because they only offer positive feedback. For whatever reason, they refuse to point out any flaws they may see. This can be harmful to you as a writer, because this will reinforce any bad habits you may have.

On the other hand, you might fall in with a bunch of wolves whose sole purpose in life is to shred any piece of literature you might put in front of them. They’ll have you changing things that don’t need to be changed. They might also discourage you to the point that you give up on a project, or even quit writing altogether. If you go this route of joining a critique group, make sure you test the waters first. A good group of readers is hard to find.

[RICK’S NOTE: I will be moving my “Novel Ideas” group to Silver Pen at the start of 2013. It’s an invitation-only private workshop for dedicated novelists. Any Silver Pen members who are truly serious about novel writing should contact me at Silver Pen if interested.]

You could also pay a professional editor to handle the work for you. This can become very expensive, very quickly. When I contacted Medallion Press regarding my first novel, The Killing Frost, they told me two important (and true) facts about it: it was a great story, but as a whole it was in desperate need of some serious editing. I had reworked the entire novel countless times over the previous year or two, so I knew it was beyond my capabilities to fix. I did my research and found several editors who do freelance work. The key to this selection was that all of them offered a free sample. I sent each the same five pages from my manuscript. One in particular really impressed me. Due to the costs associated with it, she recommended that I only send her a few chapters, which I did. She edited them, and I used her work as a template to rework the rest of the novel. Together, we were successful, and the advance I received when Medallion accepted Frost for publication more than covered her fee.

Once you have the novel finished and edited, it’s time to begin the actual publishing process. Each of the major online publishers, such as Amazon, CreateSpace, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords, has their own format that you need to follow precisely. If you fail in even one aspect, their server will reject your project. Granted, in most cases, online publishing is free (there is a small fee with CreateSpace, since you are creating a physical product, a paperback book in this case), so this isn’t directly costing you anything. But the more time you spend waiting to hear back from the publisher, hoping you finally got the formatting right, the more time your book isn’t available for purchase. So in the long run, it really is costing you money.

The various sites have directions on them that help you to correctly format your work. These guidelines help the novice through the process, and eventually you’ll probably get it right on your own. The major issue comes from the fact that MS Word (and other word processors) tends to insert all manner of formatting into the document. Not on the surface, where you can see it, but buried in the file. Any one of those format issues can get your novel rejected.

After beating my head against this virtual wall for a while, I decided that trying to fight against it was pointless. I still handle formatting myself, but it’s a long and tedious process. I highlight the entire document and copy it over to Notepad. Since this is a very basic program, it has no formatting and will completely clean up a document. Then I highlight it and copy it right back to MS Word. But here is where it gets tedious. In the process of removing the bad formatting, it removes all formatting. Italics are gone. Indents are gone, as are page breaks. I spend the next few hours putting everything back together. But the good news is that when I’m finished, I know I’ll get it through on my first try.

[RICK’S NOTE: There are clever ways to mark your italics and page breaks, etc., and use search-and-replace to shorten this task. This could be a subject of a future blog post.]

Some lucky few writers looking for help in this process might have a friend who is willing to do the formatting for free. However, most writers who decide to get some help in the process will have to pay for it. The Internet is stuffed full of people offering their services in this regard. Prices range from affordable to ridiculous, and I’m sure the quality of the work covers the same spectrum. As with editing, I’d advise shopping around. Compare prices, look at samples and customer recommendations, and make your choice carefully.

[RICK’S NOTE: Don’t assume that the higher the cost of the service, the better the expected quality will be. There are some low-cost services that do excellent work and some high-cost ones that do shoddy work, so be careful, as Scott suggests.]

The two major remaining steps are writing a cover blurb and creating cover art. I blogged about cover blurbs two weeks ago, so we’ll give that subject a pass. Cover art, like editing and formatting, can be done by the author. In my case, I tried a variety of methods. For Martyr’s Inferno, I drove to St. Louis (where the final scene takes place) and took several pictures. I chose one I liked and created a cover. After a while, I found it to be substandard. Yes, once you’ve read the book, the cover makes perfect sense and is rather clever. But the purpose of cover art is to draw people to your book, not impress them after they’ve already read it. I decided to redo the artwork.

I moved on to the next method: ask a friend for help. Rick and I kicked some ideas around. Once we decided what would look best, he did the photography in his garage. The finished product is much more intriguing than the original, and it has likely boosted sales. The key, whether going alone or with a friend, is not to become laser-focused on one idea. Brainstorm, come up with several possibilities, and whittle the stack down until you find the best option.

[RICK’S NOTE: I’ll be the first to say that I am NOT a cover-art expert. My photographic set up consisted of clip-on work lights, some blue fabric for the backdrop, and an inexpensive Nikon Coolpix camera on a tripod. I cleaned things up afterwards and added in some extra elements in Photoshop (I’m not an expert there, either. I learned as I went along.). What I’m getting at is that you don’t need to be a pro or spend a lot of money to get a decent cover. It depends on your initiative and ingenuity. There are free software programs (GIMP is one) that can take the place of Photoshop, or you can perhaps find a friend who is good with these programs willing to help out for the pleasure and challenge (and an acknowledgment in the book).]

With my first three novels, a few years ago I regained the rights to them and self-published them electronically. But because I didn’t pay Medallion Press for the artwork, I had to redo the cover art. I chose to browse the Internet for images to use. There are a number of sites where you can pay a small fee (usually only a few dollars) to have the rights to use an image. For each book, I chose an image that I thought carried the atmosphere of the novel, and I created the cover art from there. The result was sufficient, but not spectacular. Unless you get lucky and find that one image among hundreds or thousands that really captures the message you want to convey, you aren’t likely to get a spectacular result this way.

The other option here is to pay a professional artist to develop the cover art for you. I did this with 14 Days ‘Til Dawn and Archon’s Gate. The results were pretty spectacular. I told her what I wanted to convey with the image, and she designed two excellent covers for me. The problem was that in each case, I spent more for the cover art than I’ve actually made back in sales of the books. As with the other aspects of self-publishing, keep that in mind when electing to hire professional services.

Options abound for handling the various phases of self-publishing. As I’ve shown with my own work, you might even handle each novel differently until you find a method you’re comfortable with, both from a quality and a financial standpoint. If you do hire services at any point in the process, study their results. Are you satisfied with what you paid for? Would you pay this person again? Is this something you can learn from and do on your own the next time? Make your decisions carefully. This phase of the process can make the difference between a successful novel and one that collects dust on the virtual shelf.