How to Self-Publish and Not Go Broke

One of the core principles of communication they taught in my college business classes was: If you present a problem without offering a solution, you’re just whining. I started this blog with the intention of helping new and aspiring writers navigate the world of (self-)publishing, and that is still its primary focus, despite the occasional rant and whine.

With my last post, I presented a problem: Self-publishing costs time and money.

With this one, I would like to present a few workarounds and practical solutions that basically boil down to: It doesn’t mean you have to go broke to do it.

Be forewarned, this will be a very long post that essentially summarizes a large portion of this entire website, but I wouldn’t post it if I didn’t think it was important.

So let’s take it from the top.


The Process of Self-Publishing in 12 (Not So) Easy Steps


  1. Write a book
  2. Get it edited
  3. Copyright it
  4. Write your blurb and tag line
  5. Choose your distribution strategy and timeline
  6. Create your distribution accounts
  7. Format your book
  8. Cover your book
  9. Set your price
  10. Upload the files
  11. Click Publish
  12. Promote like the entire future of your writing career depends on it.

This list will be the basis for what’s about to follow. You’ll notice not all of the items on that list have a monetary cost attached to them. But I did say “time and money,” didn’t I? 🙂 That’s because your time is money. Free time isn’t really free. It’s time you could spend with your loved ones, or chilling out by yourself. Every hour you put into being a writer is work. Even if you don’t want to call it that. It’s work you expect to get paid for in the future through royalties, so it’s a cost that is meant to be recouped.

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Read More, Read BETTER

This is going to be part author tip, part lecture (not the boring, preachy kind, I hope) and part recommendation list. It will likely be on the long side, but bear with me, there is a point to it, I promise.

THE LECTURE

We’ve all heard the saying that in order to be a great writer, you have to be an avid reader. Want to improve your writing? Read more.

That saying in and of itself is an example of the problem with the saying. Yes, if you want to be a great writer, you definitely need to read a lot. But there is nuance to that, which you kind of have to intuit. The act of reading in and of itself isn’t enough. The trick is in how you read.

You’ve heard about active listening, right? It’s the concept of listening to understand, not to form a response. See, when you listen with the intent of forming a response, you’re not really listening to what someone is telling you. You have an agenda and you automatically fit what is being said into what you want to hear so you can respond. By doing that, you miss the message. Active listening means paying attention to what is being said and how it’s being said. You then repeat it back to the speaker to confirm that you understood what they’re trying to say, and only then do you respond.

The same applies to reading. In order to hone your own writing style, you need to practice active reading (and I totally made that term up, but it’s the most fitting term for what I mean). You need to not just read the book, but also absorb the technical details about it. Analyze the voice, appreciate the diction, trace the story arc, dig deep into the characters’ psyche. Think about why the author wrote what they did, how it fits into the overall whole of the book.

It’s a lot less fun than reading for pleasure, I’ll tell you that. And it will absolutely ruin you as a reader because, once you see behind the curtain, you won’t be able to close it back again. You will start to critique every new book you read, even the ones you absolutely love. That’s the sacrifice you make to become a good writer. Because you need to be able to identify things you like and dislike in the books you read in order to be able to identify them in the books you write.

THE AUTHOR TIP

That concludes the lecture part of this post. Now on to the tip and reading list.

I propose that every author brings something unique to their books. Sometimes you can’t quite put your finger on it, but when you see it, you recognize that, “Yep, that’s definitely a John Smith book.” That’s what you want to find–in other people’s books, as well as in yourself as an author. What makes them special? What is your own something special?

A while back, I put together a list of books I thought every writer should read, for various reasons. I want to share that here with you now. If you’ve already read these books, try reading them again, while keeping these notes in mind. You might notice some things you missed before.

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR VOICE AND STYLE

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Ms. Austen had an earworm of a writing style. I’m not even kidding. Why do you think it’s been emulated so much? Read one of her books and then try to write one chapter in that same style. You’ll be surprised how easy it is to do, and how hard it is to stop.

When I got this assignment in high school, I ended up writing a 40-page novella, rather than just a chapter, and it’s influenced my writing ever since. Austen’s writing style is so sophisticated and lyrical, but not pretentious at all. It flows through your mind and makes you feel like you’re wearing a period costume and reclining on a drawing room settee. It’s beautiful. Plain and simple.

The Dust Lands Series by Moira Young

In contrast to that, I present to you the Dust Lands series by Moira Young. Compared to Austen, the voice of this series feels like a train wreck in the beginning but, like Austen, it gets under your skin. The style of this series is very deliberate. It speaks to the theme of the books, and is basically written as if someone from that book was telling you the story. It shoves you face first into this dystopian world and at first you hate it, then you want more, then you can’t get back out.


The voice and style of your book is extremely important–it sets the stage and paints the world you’re describing. But it doesn’t have to be grammatically flawless and poetic to make an impact. Sometimes, going against the grain is the best thing you can do.


RECOMMENDATIONS FOR ATMOSPHERICS

The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

This book changed the way I thought about books, and it required a brilliant English teacher to point it out to me, because I would have missed it otherwise. That’s how brilliant this actually is–you don’t realize the brilliance of it because you’re so engrossed in the scene you’re not thinking about the writing anymore.

Conrad is very good at telling the story from a specific character’s perspective. You see, hear, and feel what the character feels. That means, when he’s eavesdropping on someone’s conversation and those people move away, their dialogue fades out and you strain to try to hear more. You catch pieces here and there, holding your breath so you don’t get noticed. You’re no longer reading the book, you’re inside the story.

Dreaming of You by Lisa Kleypas

I’m including this book because it’s one of my all time favorites. There are plenty of things I love about it, but one of them is the way Ms. Kleypas describes her settings. Like Conrad, she puts you into the scene. When Sara is chasing off Derek’s attackers, you can feel the cold damp of the London night. When she’s hiding with Derek behind the curtain of the music room, you feel the heady heat of the scene, and your heart beats faster hoping no one pulls that curtain back.

When it comes to historical settings, authors sometimes have the tendency to go overboard with description in the interest of historical accuracy. Not so with Kleypas. She focuses on the story itself and the setting, while accurate (as far as I know), is only a part of it.


The beauty of descriptives is that they don’t have to drone on. In fact, their impact is far greater when they’re succinct and to the point. Both of these books are an excellent example of this.


RECOMMENDATIONS FOR CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Dickens needs no introduction. If you haven’t read any of his books yet, I highly recommend that you do. This was the first book I’ve read by him, and I loved it from the very beginning. The story follows a young boy called Pip as his life takes several unexpected twists and turns and what I loved about it is the unvarnished way in which it is related.

Pip isn’t perfect. He is a young child when all this begins and, as such, you get to see him grow up, make mistakes, form attachments and prejudices, etc. At times, I wanted to slap him. At others, I felt horrible for what he was being put through. By the end, though he was still a very young man, he’s already lived a life fuller than most people will ever have. His flaws are what make Pip such an amazing character. Because perfection is boring. As readers, what we relate to are a character’s flaws and shortcomings. What we want is to see them triumph despite them.

By the way, Pip isn’t the only character in this story written in such a brilliant fashion. The entire cast of characters is presented in a way that will leave a lasting impression on the reader, which is a rare thing in literature.

The Rule of Four by Dustin Thomason and Ian Caldwell 

These two gentlemen wrote a book that became wholly and unfairly overshadowed by the phenomenon of The DaVinci Code. It’s called The Rule of Four and I recommend it here for one reason: the main character. Not the narrator, mind you, but the main character driving the plot. Similar to The Heart of Darkness, this story is told by an outside observer (and, really, it overlaps my recommendation category to Atmospherics as well because of it). You follow along from an intellectual distance, so you never get the full feel of the tension, frustration, and passion of this quest, you just get to bear witness to it. It’s that distance which makes this book so brilliant. Because you feel the narrator’s dismissal and simultaneous intrigue. You want to know more but are denied almost to the very end.

This book is not an action-packed adventure, but when the action does happen, it grips you unexpectedly hard because of it and you realize how attached you’ve grown to this one character. And therein lies its brilliance: You care almost despite yourself, and for reasons that seem so flimsy on the surface, but run as deep as if it was your actual best friend in that scene.


In any given book, it’s either the characters who drive the plot, or the plot that changes the characters. You can choose one, or the other, or sometimes both, but whichever it is, it’s not the action that makes readers connect with and relate to the characters, it’s the emotional context. Subtlety is the name of the game. At least it is in my own writing.


RECOMMENDATIONS FOR PLOT AND DIALOGUE

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

Have you read this one? Whether you say yes or no, you probably already know the story from somewhere. That’s how amazing it is. This book is not only well-written, it tells a story that sticks with you forever. It’s just so… big. It takes you to lots of different places, introduces lots of different characters, all of whom are in some way connected, but at the same time, it all centers around one man and his life. Edmond Dantes becomes the fulcrum on which all those lives turn. And they don’t even know it…

Seriously, if you haven’t read it yet, do. Take notes on how to tell a brilliant tale of love, pain, anguish, and revenge. Admire the genius of what Edmond has achieved and how. The behind-the-scenes machinations, the benevolence of his favor and the malice of his wrath. Absolutely nothing this man does is ever without an underlying reason. Whether it’s taking out a loan, or casually mentioning a medicinal tonic that can just as easily become a deadly poison.

This is a really long book, but it reads so quickly you don’t notice the page count. That’s brilliant story telling right there.

Dark Desires After Dusk by Kresley Cole

If you ask me who my favorite author is, right now, and for the last few years, it’s been Kresley Cole. She is a paranormal romance author and her books have never ever disappointed me. She has a singular gift for sarcasm and wit, and she brings that into her dialogue. A lot of times, writers adopt a very formal style with their dialogue which can come across stiff and unnatural. Ms. Cole writes the way people actually talk. And that can be a huge deal for a story, especially one set in present day(ish). You can see their conversations happening in real life, which makes the characters extremely relatable. Not only that, they’re also hilarious.

Dark Desires After Dusk might be my favorite of this entire series and it’s because of the hero, Cadeon Woede and his shameless sense of humor. This book is definitely worth reading, even if maybe you’re not really into paranormal romance. Just pay attention to the dialogue. I promise, you’ll appreciate the hell out of it. 😉 [just a bit of demon humor there]


I lumped the plot and dialogue in the same category because a great first chapter will hook a reader, but these two are what will keep them reading. If you don’t have your story plotted out properly, you will lose your readers in a heartbeat. They will spot plot holes from a mile away, and they may not be very forgiving. And dialogue is often times the hardest thing to get right. It requires a keen ear and a gift for listening. You need to be able to emulate natural speech from all walks of life in your chosen time period, but still make it relatable for readers in the here and now. But if you can do that, you’re halfway there. 


NOTICE ANYTHING WEIRD?

So now you’ve read the whole list. Notice anything special about it? Every single category has one classic and one contemporary title. There is a reason for that. The classics are, of course, classic for a reason, but if you’ve ever actually read them, you’ll know that not all of them are all that well-written or enjoyable (coughFrankensteincough). I think it’s because the stories and the message they convey transcend time, but the books themselves do not. Not everything written 100+ years ago will appeal to modern audiences. We can appreciate them in the context of their own time period, but sometimes they become more of an intellectual exercise, rather than something to savor for its own sake.

There are scores of modern books that are well worth reading and learning from, both for their ability to connect with their own audience, and for their unique, timeless qualities. Will these modern books be taught in schools a hundred years from now? I have no idea. But, as a writer, I can say I’ve developed a deep appreciation for them and what they’ve done for my own writing.

That’s all I have for you today. 🙂 Until next time!

GOT A LIST OF YOUR OWN? SHARE IN THE COMMENTS!

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August #AuthorTip: Define Your Own Success

Last but not least, a tip for preserving your inner happy:


The secret to being successful and happy is to define what “success” and “happiness” mean to you and not let anyone tell you otherwise.

True, most authors have big dreams of becoming a #1 NYT Bestseller and everything that comes with it: fame, interviews, movie deals, merchandise lines… but there are a few whose aims are somewhat humbler. For some, getting that publishing deal at all is the ultimate achievement. For others, just finishing that darn book they’ve been working on for the last 30 years would be the biggest success. Some authors are writing family histories just for their relatives, to share stories of generations past. Others might just be looking to keep all the bedtime stories they tell their kids in one volume, illustrated by their children. And then there are authors who just want to know that someone out there is reading their work and storing it carefully on a shelf with their most beloved volumes.

Maybe the best way to measure success is in steps. Set achievable goals, and when you reach them, set your aim on the next step up. But realize that none of those achievements will mean a thing in the long run if you sacrifice too much to achieve them. Always keep sight of what’s truly important in life, because chances are it’s not going to be that “New York Times Bestselling Author” tagline on the cover of your book.


This concludes my #AuthorTip series (for now). I sincerely hope you enjoyed these posts and found them helpful.

I have been asked why I don’t have a Donate button on this blog. The reasons are both logistical and personal. But if you still want to show your appreciation, the most welcome way would be with a purchase of one or more of my books. I have quite a few of them to choose from, in several genres. You can read more about them on my author website: AlianneDonnelly.com.

Thanks for your support! <3

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August #AuthorTip: Treat Yourself

Continuing this post series with a tip for celebrating your achievements:


The best thing ever for a writer is to see their book on a bookshelf–whether it’s their own at home or in a bookstore. But a lot of witers don’t publish their books in print. It can be expensive and/or time-consuming to set up a print book and they’re likely not going to sell very well because eBooks are more affordable for readers.

So how do you mark the glorious occasion of a release day if you don’t have a “trophy” to hold up?

Some people get their book covers blown up to poster size and framed. Other people do magnets, or scrapbooks. Some shrink the covers down into charms for a bracelet. Sensing a theme here? The idea is have something specific to the book and personal to you to commemorate its birth, and the best way to do that is by utilizing the most easily identifiable part of it: the cover.

My trick was to print cover flats. I would create a faux back cover with the blurb, my website URL, and maybe thumbnails of the other books in the series (if applicable). I would order 4×6″ color postcards from GotPrint with the cover on one side and the faux back cover on the other. This served two purposes:

  1. I now had something to add to my collection, which I could keep neatly contained in a simple photo album
  2. I now had something to give out when people asked about my latest release

Of course, I eventually had to go one step farther and make a custom album:

Since most of my books are now out in print and neatly filling my bookshelves, you’d think the album had become redundant. But actually, it’s become a neat trip down memory lane. It has preserved all the old covers my books used to have before I updated them. Good times…

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August #AuthorTip: Practice Balance

Continuing this post series with a tip for not going broke–financially, emotionally, and socially:


Practice balance–in your finances and in your life.

The first rule of business is that you need to spend money to make money. Well, that may be true, but you can still be smart about where you invest it. Budget yourself and don’t spend more than you can afford. Set aside some portion of your royalties for marketing expenses, and some for necessary ones like editing and cover design. You don’t have to spend a lot to put out a beautiful book, and you don’t have to spend a lot to promote it. Look for free or low cost options online, and skip the print media (those are usually much more expensive and don’t give you nearly as much reach as the Internet).

Likewise, balance your time between your writing job and life in general. Spend time with your family, go out with your friends, take a day or two just for yourself. Get plenty of sleep, and don’t skip meals. Don’t let your passion become your jailer. It’s too easy to get swept up in all the things that you need to or want to do around your books (and believe me, the list is never ending…) and if you let it, it’ll consume your mind, body, and soul. Yes, we all “write” all the time, even if it’s just thinking about that new story we’re working on, or a new marketing technique we want to try out, but you need to be able to switch off every once in a while. Writing is a wonderful thing to do, but it’s not worth your health, your family, or your relationships.

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August #AuthorTip: Don’t Quit Your Day Job

Continuing this post series with a versatile tip:


Don’t quit your day job–

–unless you have the funds or passive income to keep you in the lifestyle you’re used to while you write full time.

The hard truth is that writing/publishing is not a get rich quick scheme. In fact, there is no guarantee that your books will make any money at all, let alone enough to live on. If you don’t have enough savings to carry you through the dry spells or another source of income to pay the bills, don’t risk everything you have on a full-time writing career. You can still write while you hold down a job–most authors do. It’s harder, but it’s doable.

But aside from financial considerations, having a full- or part time job has other advantages, too. It gets you out of the house so you see sunshine, get out of your head, rewire your brain to something else for a little while. You meet people (a hard thing to do if you write from home full time) and have a unique opportunity to introduce them to your books. Will all of them be supportive or even interested? No. But if there is even one or two who decide to check out your books, it’s one or two more readers than you would have had otherwise. And if they like what they read, they are more likely to help spread the word because they work with a published author!

The people with whom you spend the most time are your most likely promoters. That means family, friends, and coworkers. Don’t underestimate the power of a captive 9-5 audience. 😉

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August #AuthorTip: Avoid Harmful Comparisons

Continuing this post series with a tip for not letting other authors’ successes destroy your confidence:


Don’t compare your behind-the-scenes with someone else’s highlight reel. Learn and embrace your writing cycle.

A lot of times, you might see authors posting truly impressive word count updates and feel like you’re dragging your feet. Or you might see someone publishing four titles a year while you’re struggling to put out one. The thing is, you rarely see someone’s struggle online–we tend to keep that bottled up pretty well and only post our triumphs. It’s both a boost for us and a way to make it look easy. We want to make ourselves look good. Like we know what we’re doing… ’cause we totally do! No, seriously. 😉

But you never know what’s going on behind the scenes. Could be those four books had been written over the last ten years. Could be someone writes 20,000 words in a week and then doesn’t turn on the computer for the next month. Everyone writes at their own pace, and that works for them. Rather than try to emulate them, learn what works for you, and embrace it.

Do you write a little every single day? Great! Keep at it. Do you write in massive bursts for weeks and then need a month or so off to recharge (like I do)? That works, too. Do you word-vomit the first draft in record speed and then go back to flesh it out over ten months and fifty drafts? Go for it. Do you prefer to write cleaner first drafts to see the story take shape on the page as you go? You do your thing!

The point is, whatever gets you from Chapter 1 to The End is what you need to be doing. There’s no universal formula to make you write faster or better, you just have to sit down and do it, and not let other people’s achievements undermine your own. Don’t compare, don’t envy, don’t emulate… just write.

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August #AuthorTip: Protect Your Health

Continuing this post series with a tip for staying healthy:


Speaking from experience, I can tell you that writing can be hazardous to your health. It’s long hours of staring at a computer screen, typing away on your keyboard, writing in notebooks, or tapping on your mobile device. It’s a constant seesaw between imagining fictitious worlds and characters, and tedious practical planning and budgeting. You sacrifice your social life, your evenings, nights, and weekends.

But one thing you should not sacrifice is your health and well-being. Make sure your office setup is conducive to long hours of computer work. Invest in a good ergonomic keyboard, buy glasses that filter blue light so you don’t get eye strain. Take breaks to stretch your legs, drink plenty of water, and don’t skip meals. Get plenty of rest and exercise when you can, preferably outside in the fresh air.

Take the same careful care of your mental and emotional health. Don’t stress yourself over things you can’t control. Make backup plans so you don’t get caught off guard. Take time off to decompress and take your mind off things. Build a support system of friends and loved ones you can talk to about book stuff and life stuff–people who will drag you out of your hermit cave on occasion and among the living.

In short: don’t forget there is life outside of the one you’re writing about. 🙂

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August #AuthorTip: Coping with Bad Reviews

Continuing this post series with a tip for preserving your cool, publicly and internally:


You will never be able to please everyone and that’s okay. That’s life, and it’s all good. But be aware that, as a result, bad reviews will happen. It’s just a fact of writer life. You might even get terrible, rude, totally insulting reviews that have less to do with the book and more to do with the reviewer’s mood. Coming to terms with this now will make life much easier going forward.

Tips on how to handle bad reviews:

1. Have a private cry and share with your friends in private for emotional support
2. Read good reviews and feedback to offset the bad and remember how awesome you still are
3. Try to find something constructive in the review and use it to improve with the next book
4. if the review is abusive, report it through proper channels to the website where it was posted
5. Let it go, forget about it, and move on to preserve your own health and sanity

What you should NOT do, under ANY circumstance:

1. Rant/whine/complain about it online (including social media and your own website) where it will definitely affect your public image and business relationships
2. Argue with, attack, or slander the reviewer either directly or indirectly (this is childish, and just plain bad business)
3. In any way encourage your friends/readers/followers to argue with, attack, or slander the reviewer (this is bullying–don’t be that person)

Remember: Only you can prevent Facebook drama. Be the bigger person.

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August #AuthorTip: Maintain Your Zen

Continuing this post series with a tip for overworked, I-can-do-it-all Indies (like me):


Don’t lose sight of why you do what you do.

You’re a writer. That’s your thing. You may be a lot of other things besides that (cover designer, publisher, marketer, public figure, etc.) but when you write, you’re a writer, and that’s what matters most. Not the fame, not the paycheck, not author appearances, panel discussions, book signings, interviews, or any of that crap. What matters is what you put on paper: your stories.

Whenever I lose sight of that, whenever my focus shifts to all the things I can’t do and haven’t accomplished, it depresses the hell out of me for about 10 minutes. That’s how much time I allow myself to dwell on that crappy thing that happened, or the great thing I expected that didn’t happen. After that, I look at where I am, how far I’ve come, what I’ve accomplished. I look at a bookshelf of my printed books–physical proof of decades of hard work–and it makes me smile. Because I did that. There are thousands of printed pages on that shelf, and they’re all mine.

I can’t control how others take to what I write, or to me as the author, but I can sure as hell control what I write, and how I spend my time and energy. And in the end, that’s what it all comes down to. I can choose to complain about what isn’t, or celebrate what is. And I’ve always been a rather happy-go-lucky kind of person.

Celebrate your accomplishments. Learn from mistakes or failures, and then move on.

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