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Serious Advice for Serious Independent Authors from Author M. Elias Keller

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This is a guest post from M. Elias Keller, author of Strange Case of Mr. Bodkin & Father Whitechapel

Having recently independently published a novel, I’ve come upon plenty of “how-to” or “what-not-to-do” articles about the process. Most of the advice is sound enough—yes, you must proofread your work until your eyeballs vomit—but I haven’t found many articles that target serious writers who are trying to accomplishing more than seeing their name in print.

 An author published by a large publishing house is, in a way, an employee. The company has invested in the author’s work and the author is compensated based on product sales. If sales meet certain benchmarks, the company continues to invest in the employee—if not, the author may be looking for a new publisher for future works.

On the other hand, publishing independently effectively makes that author an entrepreneur and marketer, similar to a musician/band that releases an album independently and promotes it through touring. Both author and musician have a similar goal: being picked up by a major publisher/label, or selling enough books/music (and merchandise) to make a living. (The two aren’t mutually exclusive!)

The freedom and speed that independent publishing offers can be a genuine benefit to serious authors who care enough about their work to invest real time, money and effort into promoting it. Independent authors retain a lot of control over all aspects of their books, and also are freed from the pressure to satisfy arbitrary benchmarks based on a marketing and accounting department.

The drawback of independent publishing is that it’s hard to do well; you’re largely on your own; and you’re apt to get lumped together with self-published books that fall into categories such as “I love my cat” or “Books with more typos than words.”

So let’s get into some nitty-gritty. Here are some tips that come straight from my own experience of independently publishing, but also integrating time-tested strategies from the traditional publishing industry.

Don’t finish your manuscript on Friday and publish it on Saturday.

I hesitated to include this tip because I would think it would be painfully obvious to any serious author. But here goes anyway: the timeline of publishing with the internet, and especially e-books (which can be “published” almost instantaneously) has changed. But hastily rushing a work to the market just because you can is never a good idea. Like wine, real books need time to mellow, and being patient will give you time to be sure the work is in a finished, polished (not necessarily “perfect”) state before publishing. This tip also connects to the next one:

Submit your manuscript to agents and publishing houses first.

This piece of advice may seem counter-intuitive or counterproductive: after all, if you’re publishing independently, why go through the hassle of submission, waiting an eternity, and then most likely being rejected? Why not just cut to the chase and get the work out there?

Answer: because getting professional feedback, even in the form of a rejection, can be invaluable if/when it comes to putting the book out there yourself. Like it or not, literary agents understand the marketplace, and any scraps of critique you get on your manuscript can go a long way to creating a finished product that has a real chance of commercial success.

And just submitting to agents can give you a good feel of whether your project has potential. Buckets and buckets of form rejection slips may not be especially useful, but rejection notes that offer positive feedback but indicate that the book just isn’t right for that agent’s list, or that the agent doubts whether she can get it past a marketing department, could be a sign that independently publishing could be a reasonable option.

Here’s an example: I submitted the manuscript of my novel Strange Case of Mr. Bodkin & Father Whitechapel to many agents and got a bunch of encouraging rejections, but rejections nonetheless. However, one agent did express real interest in representing the book and offered detailed suggestions for a more marketable version of the book. I didn’t take all of her suggestions, but I did take most of them, and they greatly improved what was more of a literary experiment into a good story.

Now, when I sent her the revision, she still didn’t elect to represent it because she felt the market would be too limited. That was disappointing, but now I had a more marketable (and simply better) manuscript that I felt more confident publishing myself. And I didn’t even have to give up 10%.

Have at least one objective gatekeeper.

I was fortunate to get this detailed critique from a professional agent. Not every independent author/publisher will have that. But it’s crucial, absolutely crucial, to have someone that can give you objective feedback on your manuscript. (Not your mother.) Usually, if you have to question whether that person is objective, he or she is NOT.

 The best way to test objectivity is to have a friend that has, at some point, given a resounding “thumbs down” on something you’ve written. A buddy of mine mercilessly (but justly) tore apart my first novella and called it unpublishable. It stung at the time, but down the line, when he read and “green-lighted” my Bodkin manuscript, I knew I could trust that feedback. (Of course, another good option to hire a professional editor—but do your due diligence first.)

Keep a professional outlook.

Writing (fiction especially) is an end in itself, and writing a book for the experience of the creative process is a perfectly noble endeavor. Publishing, however, is a different species. As soon as an author decides to become a publisher, he/she must embrace a wholly professional outlook.

For example, while it’s nice that my family and friends support me, my goal isn’t really to sell a book to my aunt. My goal is to sell my book to total strangers who don’t care one bit about me, personally, but are interested in my novel and will spend time and money to read it.

If your book was released by a major publishing house, would your reaction be, “Great! Now my neighbors and my uncle can read it!”? No? Then don’t have that outlook as an independent author/publisher.

Have a career plan.

This is where being independent can be a big advantage for serious-minded authors. Vanity publishing is for non-professional writers that want to see their name in print or impress their family and friends. Those writers aren’t really trying to build a career or gasp!—a brand. Most likely they’ll publish that one book, and that’s all.

But for serious writers, independently publishing a book is a very legitimate way to start a career. (Spend a few minutes on Google, and you’ll be surprised at all the successful authors, contemporary and “timeless,” that started out by self-publishing.) When I began to see how Mr. Bodkin & Father Whitechapel could build the platform for my work-in-progress, I became much more comfortable with “self-publishing.” In short: until you have a plan for the next project, don’t publish the first one.

Aim for the right targets.

Another aspect of having a career plan is identifying the right goals. Nudging my Amazon sales rank from 1,183,957 to 848,391 is completely meaningless. For an independent author/publisher at the beginning of his/her career, selling thousands and thousands of copies is an admirable goal, but it’s not realistic. 

The goal at the early stages is to gain exposure, get real reviews, and build a network of (non-family/friend) supporters for your future projects. If you’re obsessing over your profits or feeling chagrined that your old roommate didn’t buy your book, you’re in for a really rocky and disappointing road.

Spend less time thinking about how to make your book a bestseller and more time getting a copy into the hands of (appropriate) people with the power to bring your career to the next level. Getting an influential blogger to review or even just mention your book will be far, far more beneficial to your career than hard-selling four books to your co-workers.

To recap: Try the old way first. Have a gatekeeper. Keep it professional. Have a career plan, build a network of supporters, and forget about dreamy sales targets.

And finally: if you’re proud of your work, then be proud of being independent. Big publishing houses offer nice benefits, but they tend to think in terms of quarters and fiscal years. Serious authors think in terms of serious stories that will resonate for centuries. Keep the proper perspective and let your work speak for itself.

M. Elias Keller grew up in Bucks County, PA and earned degrees in Anthropology and Urban Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. He has been a freelance and journalistic writer in Philadelphia and San Diego, as well as publishing short fiction in various literary magazines. Keller is the author of Strange Case of Mr. Bodkin & Father Whitechapel, a companion novel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde that reverses the classic tale by bringing forth the saintly counterpart of a ruthless banker. He lives in Philadelphia.

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  1. Don’t forget all of the post printing marketing and leg work required by the independent publisher. Book tours, public readings, attending appropriate events to promote the book and maybe most importantly, use of social media are an important part of the process if you want to avoid the mindset of “if you publish, they will read.”

    • Great tips Ben. Indie publishing isn’t for the writer who expects to do the bare minimum! We been hearing more and more about the ineffectiveness of book tours though. Curious to see how significant tours and signings will be for indie authors in the long term.

  2. Didn’t mention importance of book cover! But I’m biased 😛 Good post, good to see some advice that says writers should get some gatekeepers that can keep them accountable and improve through constructive criticism. All that ”no more gatekeepers” thing is gone and is not true.

    Gatekeeper importance actually just gonna be growing, even if it is a bit more distributed from book stores to book blogs and more.

    • Good points adrijusg and ben! I didn’t focus on book cover and social media because I know there are plenty of articles that address that and I wanted to stick to points of advice I haven’t seen much about online. And yes, the ability to effectively self-publish emphasizes the value of gatekeepers — though that’s not to say that traditional big publishing houses are the most effective gatekeepers. Thanks for reading.–MEK

  3. Thanks for sharing your perspective on independent publishing. I especially appreciated, “Big publishing houses offer nice benefits, but they tend to think in terms of quarters and fiscal years. Serious authors think in terms of serious stories that will resonate for centuries.”

  4. Good post MEK, nice to read something like this that doesnt contain the phrase ‘…and everyone thought my book was awesome’. Good advice re getting a review from somebody you know wont give you an easy ride! Cheers!

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