My first experience with self-publishing did not begin with my own book. It was back when I was in high school when I was busy practicing mellophone with my marching band team.
We were training every day after school until late at night. We were exhausted but we didn’t slack off. We knew that we wanted to win in the national Grand Prix Marching Band competition. We wanted to bring back the trophy, to become the 1st winner once again.
Just like any other competition though, we needed funding. On top of the enrollment fee, we needed to fund the costume, the food and lodging for training, the transportation for the band instruments, the trainer’s fees, and more.
I was the lead treasurer; I held the responsibility of collecting fees.
It was around that time when my mother came by to the practice. She held a carton box filled with red-covered books. She started handing them one by one to interested parents.
I eyed the whole scene from afar while resting with my peers. I wondered what she was doing.
You can have any reasons to want to self-publish your book. In the story above, self-publishing was used to fundraise a marching band competition. Later, my mother received praises: “It’s admirable!” and “What an achievement!”. Apparently, most of us thought that writing a book is a positive and inspiring act. This is still true even today, despite the many eBooks out there. When it comes to a one-to-one talk, ‘writing a book’ is still a form of achievement.
Why publishing a book is more competitive than ever
Based on an infographic from Global English Editing in 2017, the book publishing market value is USD 151 Billion. This market outperforms USD 133 Billion films and entertainment, USD 107 Billion magazines, USD 63 Billion video games, and USD 50 Billion music markets. In the year of 2017, about 35.7% of US book distribution is Hardback, 34.3% is Paperback, 5.6% is Audiobook, and 17% is eBooks. This equals to 675 million print book unit sales in the United States and 266 million eBooks sold in 2017. Statista also mentions that the age of eBook readers in America is 34% consists of 18-29 years old, 31% is 30-49 years old, 20% is 50-64 years old, and 15% is older than 65 years old.
What this bunch of data tells us is that the book publishing industry has a great market value and is still dominated by hardback and paperback books. eBooks, in particular, are becoming more popular for younger readers.
However, book publishing revenue is stagnant
Meanwhile, IBIS World offers a different perspective on the book publishing industry. The US book publishing industry has USD 29.4 Billion revenue in 2019 and they survive with four key products: textbooks (contributes 41.6% to the total revenue), professional / technical / scholarly books (contributes 26.4% to the total revenue), adult trade books (contributes 18% to the total revenue), and children books up to 18 years old (contributes 7% to the industry revenue). As IBIS World stated, the industry has been stagnant and tries to shift from brick-and-mortar bookstores to online bookstores. To be exact, the revenue has declined -16.62% from USD 34,876 in 2005 to USD 29,078 in 2018.
Here is the ongoing trend
The ongoing trend will be non-fiction, hybrid digital-print contents in the self-publishing industry. We will also see adult fiction books in psychological suspense, nostalgia, and darker narratives. Young Adult fiction will have dystopian and horror, graphic novels, and creative nonfiction.
However, there's hope: readers still do read!
There are readers out there: 72% (or seven in ten) American adults have read a book within a year based on a survey conducted by Pew Research Center in 2015. Global citizens spend 6.5 hours reading books per week in contrast to 16.6 hours watching TV and 8.9 hours on computers or on the internet. In particular, India as a country spends 10.7 hours per week reading books (the longest time compared to other countries) and Japan spends 4.1 hours per week (the shortest time).
It means that people are still consuming information. There may be more avenues to read: social media, online publications, and more. But there’s still interest in sharing and reading stories.
So, you think you can publish? Start first with setting up goals
Even before you begin to write your story, you should define what ‘success’ means to you. Is it about getting a million dollar from book sales? Is it from getting reviews and feedback? Is it from seeing your book at a local bookstore?
Envision yourself with your published book. This helps you understand what motivates you and better yet, to strategize how exactly you’re going to get there.
Learn from other authors
An example would be a friend of mine, Carissa Atrianty, who was inspired by Clarissa Goenawan who won the Bath Novel Award 2015. Learning that writers can get published through writing competitions, my friend submitted her work to a Singaporean writing competition and got longlisted.
Do your research!
At this stage, you should also research on the market. If you’re writing a genre fiction book, you should check the industry standard on how many pages to write. For example, historical fiction might have fewer pages than fantasy novels. You can check the numbers here from the Manuscript Appraisal Agency.
The craft of storytelling: plot, character, setting and description, style
As you begin to write, you might want to outline your story. Even if you are a pantser or someone who doesn’t like to plan, you need a guideline or ideas on how the story would develop. Explore more about plot through K.M. Weiland’s free eBook here.
You then explore the characters you want to portray. You should know them well enough: their physical appearances, their strengths and weaknesses, their habits, and etc. At times, you feel obliged to change a scene or even the story plotline to follow the character’s point of view. This is fine too.
Remember to add dialogues, surrounding description, time and place to enhance your worldbuilding. Avoid making a two-dimensional world where you tell Event 1 is happening, Character A talks, then Character B appears… Show, don’t tell. Try to evoke readers’ emotions through powerful dictions.
You should experiment on how you write in style. You can write a fast-paced writing like Ernest Hemingway in The Old Man and the Sea. You can also do the opposite with descriptive imagery like F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby.
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Hiring editors and designers: do you really need to?
If you are a self-starter or a Do-It-Yourself type of person, you might want to consider online tools for cover design and editing. Canva is a free graphic design tool that you can use once you sign up. Grammarly is a free grammar editing tool. ProwritingAid also gives feedback on writing, much like HemingwayApp.
However, I also understand the rest who feels that they need professional help in completing the book. For cover designers, you can browse through Upwork or Fiverr and possibly at Facebook groups too. Meanwhile, for editors you can try Reedsy and Cornerstones UK. I also would recommend Shalini from Goodreads Beta Reader group.
The million-dollar question is which publisher to choose
While most of you would argue that this is the most stressful part, I dare to say that choosing a publisher is the most fun part. Here is the reason why. You can experiment and even try all of the publishers to test out the market!
A detailed description for services from Amazon, Lulu, Draft2Digital, and more can be found here.
When you live outside the US
If you don’t live in the United States, I would also recommend you to look for local self-publishing companies. This would save you a lot of money because of the currency exchange and the shipping cost.
Marketing your book is all about pricing and positioning
In marketing strategy, it is crucial to know about your potential customers. Translated to the self-publishing world, this means that you need to know who your target readers are before you launch your book party. Here’s the thing. You might have written a 100,000-words (or equivalent to 400 pages manuscript) novel. You spent hours – well no, technically it might have been years – finishing the manuscript, editing it, re-writing it, and etc. But if you price the book too high, no one’s going to read it. If you put a price too low, it might attract the wrong audience.
So, first, get to know your customers. Get inside their head.
A case study: Griselda Puspa's books
I would share my personal experience as an example.
My strategy for self-publishing is to target Indonesian readers in their 20-30s. They should be able to read English but I anticipated that they don’t really like reading English texts. Therefore, I limited my books to 40,000 words or 80 pages (novella-length books). Learning that the average English fictions are priced at IDR 80,000, I decided to price mine at IDR 45,000 (I sell it at USD 4.50). This strategy is in line with my brand image: I was a new writer who wasn’t famous… Why would someone buy expensive and extensive books from me?
Next, my marketing strategy is to reach out to indie bookstores. Knowing that national bookstores require at least 500 copies (at my own expense), I knew I couldn’t stand a chance. Instead, I contacted indie bookstores. Since my books were written in English, I could also market it overseas. Hence, Orphic Tales and Kaleidoscope were available in Jakarta, Bandung, Jogjakarta, Surabaya (all cities were in Indonesia), Singapore, Malaysia, and Australia.
What you need to know about contests, courses, and author's branding
Yes! Believe it or not, there are self-published book awards held by many organizations. Here is a list of them, and another list by Publishers Weekly. Also, be aware that some small publishers and contests accept manuscripts that have been self-published before. This includes the Bath Novel Award!
I’m a great believer in life-long learning and I’m here to encourage you to take a writing course. You can browse around Coursera, Udemy, edX, or even from the universities themselves (such as, University of Central Florida, University of Wisconsin-Madison). But you can also look at Faber Academy, Curtis Brown Creative, and Gotham Writers. To start off, you might want to do a Creative Writing Specialization from Wesleyan University, offered by Coursera. Be sure to make the most out of the forums and peer-to-peer grading!
As Jesse Q Sutanto said, a website is a necessity when it comes to author’s branding. You can easily use Wordpress or any other platform (this website uses Weebly). Upload your picture, give a short Bio or About Me, feature your books, and that’s it! But truthfully, the author's branding is much more about that. It’s about portraying who you are to the readers and building customer relationships with them (for example, you can actively communicate with them through social media, such as a Facebook author’s page).
Self-publishing requires a strategy: what are you writing about, who you are targeting, how you position your book with the cover design and pricing, and where do you market it. Some self-publishing services offer free upfront cost (and later takes some money from your sales), and others charge in the beginning.
It is critical for writers to have a writing support: try to look at Meetup groups and Facebook groups. If you’re looking for a Writing Buddy and Alpha / Beta Reader, you can contact me and send a brief introduction with your writing’s blurb.