Bootstrap Your Book

BootsOne of the biggest problems facing new self-publishers is the capital investment required. Almost all the advice on how much it costs to self-publish suggest that it takes thousands of dollars. It’s no wonder that new writers turn to the scammers who promise success for mere hundreds (plus the hidden up-sell once they’ve hooked the mark).

Once an author has a few books out and earning, justifying the expense of self-publishing becomes a little easier, but how do you get that first book into the market without robbing the kid’s college fund or dining on ramen for a year?

First, start with a reasonable budget. A first time self-publisher has no gauge for what kind of return to expect. Generally speaking, that first book takes a long time to gain traction so shelling out cash that may not come back for years – if ever – is a hard nut. Start small and calculate your return on investment.

Example: A novel selling at $3.99 on Amazon earns around $2.50 per sale. It only takes forty sales to earn $100. A first time self-pubber with a good marketing plan can probably do that in a month. It might take two. It will certainly take less time than writing the next book.

Second, produce the best book you can within that budget. Three things sell books--cover, blurb, and sample.

The cover has to be eye catching, indicative of the genre, and clearly recognizable in thumbnail size. Too many first-timers make the mistake of creating their own covers to save a buck when they could be grabbing a pre-made ebook cover for as little as $50. In many cases that includes a paperback format cover, too, but don’t get hung up on the paperback. The market is in ebooks. You can add paperbacks once you have some cash flow generating revenue to invest.

Blurb in this context means product description, not the one-liner that somebody more famous than you gives you to promote the title. The purpose of the blurb is to convince the potential reader who has seen your cover and looked up your book on Amazon to grab the sample. If it convinces them to buy the book, that’s just gravy. Don’t try to sell the book in the blurb. Just hook them into the sample. Too many first-timers over do the blurb and turn off the reader before they even get to the story.

Sample is where the book needs to sell itself. A good opener, a solid follow through, and a decently formatted ebook will pull the reader all the way to the “buy me” link at the end of the sample. If you’ve done your work correctly, that link will be a siren’s call to lure them deeper into the story without making them feel like they’re being held up at the troll booth.

Third, wait! What about editing and formatting and layout and design and advertising and marketing and … stuff I need to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for?

Purists might want to look away. I’m about to commit heresy here.

You probably can’t afford to pay an editor for your first book, but your book needs a copy edit as a minimum. You also should get a development editing pass and some line editing wouldn’t be amiss. Frankly, you can't afford it so here's what you do instead.

Beta readers can tell you if the story works. They can tell you where the story bogs down, or where it moves too quickly. They can tell you if your characters are believable or if the dialog is stilted. They can point you to the problem spots or tell you that the story is good. Unlike a developmental editor they can't tell you how to fix it, but knowing what's borked is half the battle.

Note: Let's be brutally honest here. At this point, unless you’ve got a million words behind you, this story is not Good. You may think it’s Good. You might be an outlier on the curve and actually have written something Good, but if it’s your first book, it’s nothing like the book you’ll write five titles down the road. That’s not a problem. That’s an advantage. You’re not aiming for Good. You’re aiming for good enough.

If that last bit of heresy wasn’t enough, here’s another.

Editing can be crowd sourced.

Not the cash-raising, gofundit kind of crowd sourced. The actual process of giving the book to about a dozen people who will send you back corrections crowd sourced. Ideally some of them will be fellow writers who have some idea about things like where the quote marks go and when you might use an m-dash instead of an n-dash. They’ll recognize realities like dialog shouldn’t be corrected for grammar, but might need you to add the missing word.

This will not result in a perfect book. If done properly, it can result in a book that is good enough.

So, give the manuscript to two or three colleagues to mark up for you. Get their feedback and figure out whether to accept it or not. Some you’ll agree with. Some will be in the class of “how did I miss that?” and some will be “Uh. No.”

Once you’ve got those changes in, send it out to two or three more colleagues to mark up and repeat this process two or three times. Save your better readers for the last pass. That’s where you can get the most benefit from the nit-pickers and analytical readers.

There’s actually a rationale behind this iterative, crowd source approach. From a quality assurance standpoint, more eyes mean higher probability to catch the errors. Nobody will get them on the first pass, but by correcting those before handing it off to the second and third and forth, each new reader will have fewer to find and will more likely find the less obvious ones.

You can also use beta readers for this. Most of them will tell you anyway, but if you ask them to look, you’ll get some typos along with the story feedback. It’s also a good way to get early buzz. Readers who liked your story and have an investment in making it better are more likely to tell their friends about it.

This can take a while, but don’t fall into the Perfect Trap. There are no perfect books. None of the Bigs publish perfect books. A librarian once said “I’m not that worried about typos and grammar. I still buy books from Harper and Random House.” If you spend all your time making it perfect, you’ll never publish and that is the fatal flaw. The reality is that you can’t prove there are no typos. You can only prove there is at least one more – by finding it.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this process is that it forces you out of your comfy spot. It makes you begin to forge connections with other writers in your genre and the readers who are most likely to be in your audience. These connections will make the difference when it comes to sales and promotion of your book when it’s finally released into the wild.

Remember you’re aiming for good enough and good enough is sufficient. In fact, I still aim for good enough, but I also look at better than the last one. You’re still on the first one and good enough is hard enough to hit the first time. Eventually your books will have earned enough--or sold enough--to justify hiring a real editor for the next one. This isn't the best way to publish a first book, but it's head and shoulders above many of the alternatives.

Next Time: Publish Or Perish

Image Credit:
John Lobb Boot by Robert Sheie
Creative Commons BY 2.0
Nathan Lowell
Nathan Lowell has been self-publishing his science fiction and fantasy since he started releasing his books in podcast form in 2007.

He frequently writes about social media, marketing, and the life of a full time self-published author.

4 thoughts on “Bootstrap Your Book

  1. I must say I’m pleasantly surprised at your post! The “heresy” portions, I’m talking about! Thanks for coming out and talking about those things! I find so few who feel the same way (well…or openly admit to it among their peers), but it’s what I’ve also researched and found through my own experience. Getting those “extra eyes” on page don’t have to cost you thousands. And if those extra eyes also happen to have ANY KIND OF style/grammar background..and/or are Big Readers–bonus!

    A well done and informative post, Nathan! Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks, Frank.

      Once you’ve got a bit of cash flow, then it makes more sense to actually hire a professional. Unfortunately, too many newcomers don’t understand the mechanics of self publishing and fall victim to scams.

Leave a Reply