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Archive for Real Self Publishing

How to help your book get distribution agreements

What are distribution and wholesaling anyway? If you believe you only need to write your book to publish it, you’re going to be disappointed at the sales once it’s in the world. D&W are different in a significant way. Distributors do more selling on your behalf. Wholesalers take orders. In the broadest sense, Amazon is a wholesaler, moving one book at at a time.

Librarians rarely order from Amazon. They use wholesalers because the librarians are readers who develop their own tastes and trust their wholesaler to get the books shipped and invoiced.

A great series at Reedsy (where I’ve hired my editing and design pros) is keeping track of what an author and self-publisher needs to get the word out about their book. It’s a short list with a long tail: you’ll be doing these things the rest of your life, once you finish that book.

A lifelong list

Amy Collins of New Shelves Books sums up the list. She’s writing about how to create buzz for your book to impress librarians and library wholesalers. You want to create demand, so your book attracts wholesalers. Libraries buy 90 percent or more of their books through wholesalers.

  • Write articles for news and other print and online outlets.
  • Create fun top 10 lists, listicles, and infographics. Get them published on blogs, other sites, and magazines.
  • Get interviewed — appear in many venues across the internet and print media.
  • Do a radio show tour. Include book giveaways.
  • Develop a large online and social media following

Amy doesn’t say this, but everything above gets you these golden nuggets

  • Endorsements from famous authors or celebrities
  • Reviews by quality, independent, respected media, and industry outlets.

She claims you should never pay for a review from a service like Kirkus or Clarion Foreword. It’s not that cut and dried. Nobody who’s in the industry, like a prospective wholesaler, will think those services are really independent book reviewers. You need to prime the pump, though. A radio tour might factor in some well-written paid reviews. Always excerpt the paid reviews. Never discount the power of any well-written review, either. A new author needs them. Set a budget for that sort of thing.

Librarians are going to need these

Collins has a specialty in getting into libraries. Acquisition librarians do the book buying and need to be sure the new purchases turn into borrows. The librarians’ bottom line is their patrons’ engagement.

Collins adds that “some of these ideas are much easier said than done. All of them can help a retailer or library see that you understand your book has a job to do. And that job is to make them money — or in the case of libraries, increase their total borrows.” If you didn’t know it, library borrows earn money for authors. The borrows also find an audience for a new author.

Photo by Cytonn Photography on Unsplash

Write for the fireplace? How to write to publish

If you like running a publishing business, then being a genre author could make some money. I like to tell authors who self publish it’s probably not going to deliver as much money as you want, for a while. You shorten the time to significant profits if you have money to invest, plus the nerve to wait on sales to arrive. That’s the period where you create art (the books) and then see if you have an audience. In the meantime, the advertising bills for your book must be paid.

Art is subjective, of course. It’s a matter of taste whether somebody unleashes their $6 for your latest ebook in your series. With the right investment in advertising, and no desire to make paper books, you could earn your way to getting paid for writing your books. Here’s a good question to answer for yourself. Would you rather wake up one morning to have a book in the world, and have no memory of creating it? Or would you rather revel in the making of the book, then finish it and throw it in the fire?

Everybody says they want that making of the book experience, plus the waking up bit. You can make your book and revel in it, then do the publishing work. The publishing has little to do with creating stories, with one exception. You need to write about your book, marketing-style, to get a readership.

You summon a savory taste of your book. We’re all in a hurry these days. Maybe less so since the pandemic, but there’s still a lot of noise out there. Be succinct and believe in selling. Master the book summary that some people call blurbs. Then make the first 10 percent of your book so riveting that readers decide to buy it from Amazon — or Kobo or Apple or Barnes and Noble — after your audience has read your teaser of 10 percent. The Making It Riveting part is where you revel in creating the book.

Self-publishing, self book marketing: How to tips

So you’ve finished your book! Good news, if you’ve already invested in editing and purchased a pro cover. Now is the time to shoulder the wheel of marketing and distribution. Self-publishing is not real publishing until it includes self book marketing. My concise list gives you tasks to accomplish.

You need to write sales copy. That’s the brief and enticing copy you will find on every book’s page at Amazon. You will also use this copy in a fact sheet (sometimes called a tip sheet in traditional publishing). It’s not all words in a fact sheet. A photo of yourself is essential in one. You send the fact sheet out to reviewers and bloggers you’d like to cover your book. You send the sales copy to Amazon and any other retail outlet you’re using. For example, IngramSpark needs this copy. So does Bowker, where you registered your ISBN numbers for the book.

Try out promoting at Goodreads. You set up an author account there (mostly by “claiming” your book as your own.) Once you have an author status, Goodreads promo tools like giveaways and book feeds (think Facebook-style) will be in your grasp. In the meantime, tell your tribe to review your book on Goodreads. They can put it on their to-read lists, too. Goodreads is the best place to encourage your fans to post their reviews. Of course, if they’re buying from an outlet with a website, a review is good there, too.

Make your website your hub

Double down on your author website. Bare minimums: a fun About Me page (tell a story or two about how you came to create your book, how you decided to be a writer) and links to the places your book is on sale. A blog is super useful to create writing you will offer for free to interested readers. Have links on your website for the social media accounts you will be feeding with delicious snippets. One big plus is a way to take orders for your book from your website. There’s an easy way to take these kinds of orders using Aerio, a service run by IngramSpark. They print your books on demand and fulfill orders. You can also hand-ship signed copies to your greatest fans if they order through your website.

Not only do you make more money per sale by moving books through your website, you also connect to readers (more on that in a minute). Amazon will never tell you anything about who reads a book you’ve written.

Create Advanced Reader Copy files (called ARCs) to send out to reviewers and allies of the book. Digital files should be in PDF, EPUB, and Kindle (MOBI) formats. Have your cover designer help out. You need these copies to help you land some endorsements of the book. Those are sometimes called blurbs. They give your book some validation, and praise, if you’re lucky. Don’t leave home without a few blurbs and endorsements.

Get those ARC files into the world for automatic download. Bookfunnel is a good and inexpensive service to use for this process. In some cases, places like Bookfunnel can even round up a few reviewers. Bookfunnel is like NetGalley but less costly. They both have promotional offers.

Make your outreach

Create and feed an author newsletter. This can be an email with just three links to interesting webpages where something happened that relates to your book. It’s much better if you write a snippet about your writing life and an aspect of your story. It’s best of all if it links to your blog. You create an emailing list of your own to send this newsletter to. Simple ways to build email lists are to swap with other authors in your field or genre. You will be doing a lot of asking with humility while you market. It’s not so bad once you’re used to it

Your author newsletter connects you to fans and readers of your books. Again, Amazon will never do this so you can see who your fans are.

Build a reader magnet to build your mailing list. You might have had good stuff from your book that just didn’t make it into the final cut. Revive it. Write histories of your characters. Write an author’s guide to the best books from your genre. If you’re unsure what a good reader magnet looks like, seek out authors like you who are creating this bonus content. Look over what they’re doing.

Develop posts for social media. People use various kinds, but you’re never far away from connecting to readers and potential fans when you use Instagram and Facebook. Create a Facebook account for your author life, not just your personal Facebook account. Your book is represented by a Page, which lets you attract Likes. Those Likes are a way of pushing your news into the Facebook Feeds of your readers. Instagram works differently — hashtags and listing the accounts of others gets you into feeds.

There is more, always more

Some of the rest will cost you more. Contest entries are the least expensive. Paid reviews will be more, and some people don’t think they’re that important. There is advertising at Amazon and at Facebook you can purchase. Take great care with that, and measure and test as you go. For more connection, you can use YouTube or Facebook for chats with fans: tell them when you’ll be live by putting the date and time in your newsletter. You can even record a little video for use on Instagram, or post one on your YouTube channel.

What, you don’t have a channel yet? It’s easy to set up. Use it to get the word out. Buy a ring light to illuminate your smile for the camera. Tell the world about your book. Then you can revel in the life of a self-published author who is doing their self book marketing.

Photo by Charisse Kenion on Unsplash

Put proofreading into books after copyedits

Ah proofreading, the finish carpentry of editing. Many authors who create their own books think they can skip it, leaving the proofreading work to a copy editor.

Pro publishers do not do it this way.

These are the kinds of things I never thought I’d care about while I was traffic director at Graphics Express in Austin in 1984. Inside that typesetting shop, though, we had a dedicated proofreader who read every bit of type that was set. The mission was, and always is, to find typos.

I have a funny story about proofreading. In a bit of maximum irony, it comes from a writing coach. In a PDF handout, the coach writes this…

“Wikipedia says copy editing is ‘the process of reviewing and correcting written material to improve accuracy, readability, and fitness for its purpose, and to ensure that it is free of error, omission, inconsistency, and repetition.’ ”

Then she adds, “There is a great deal of overlap between this kind editing and proofreading. It would be unusual for a writer to have both a copyedit and a proofread of the same manuscript.”

I’m going to tell you there’s a typo in the coach’s advice, and let you have a little sport in finding it. Hint: it’s only two letters long and is a missing word.

Just to be thorough, that coach’s advice from that PDF uses two different styles of copyedit. The Chicago Manual of Style recognizes only the verb without a space between copy and edit. So copyedit, not copy edit.

And the person doing the work? They can be a copy editor, or a copyeditor, according to the Third Edition of the New Oxford American Dictionary and the British Oxford Dictionary of English. (These are the flesh and bone of Apple’s Dictionary app.)

So clearly, any advice that you don’t need to get an MS both a copyedit and a proofread depends on who’s doing the proofing. It’s safe to assume the coach had her writing copyedited. Not so much for the proofreading.

With all credit to the Chicago Manual of Style, here’s what the CMOS says about proofreading:

“Proofreading here … applies to the review of the manuscript after it has been converted to a format for publication but before it is published. Usually, this format consists of the typeset and paginated pages of a book or journal article (referred to as proofs or proof and read either on paper or as PDF) or the full text of a book or journal article intended for publication in one or more electronic formats other than PDF.”

Go the extra step and get your book looking professional. Even if its only format will be digital. Pro advice: have proofreading follow your copyediting. Try to get two pros here — or if you love your copy editor, give the copy a week or two to rest before that person gives you a proofread.

Image by Lorenzo Cafaro from Pixabay

How to use Amazon KDP Select, or skip it

Amazon throws its weight around. They have books to sell that are exclusive. They also sell other ebooks like everybody else does: book distribution can happen simultaneously with other retailers and reading services. Kindle books can be sold only at Amazon when authors use Kindle’s KDP Select. It’s an exclusive sales channel.

Amazon calls it Kindle Unlimited for the readers; the authors know it as KDP Select.

The Kindle books which are not set up for the Select program do not need to be exclusive. It’s a choice that the author-publisher gets to make. And change back and forth, if they want. When an author chooses to use KDP Select, Amazon makes the author commit to a 90-day exclusive term. (Authors are warning each other that the exclusive term rolls over automatically — unless you turn it off.)

Self-publishers make up a big share of these Amazon-exclusive booksellers. I’m not sure why, but if after awhile you haven’t sold many copies by the book, you probably believe your book can do better if you sell by the page.

It often does not.

What KDP Select costs the author

There’s a downside to KDP Select: You’re only paid per page read. Readers only pay $10 a month to Amazon and can read as many Select books as they want.

It’s a sales model that encourages browsing, instead of reading a lot of pages inside one book. When you stand at a buffet, you usually don’t load up your whole plate with roast beef only.

Amazon puts an Unlimited book into a higher rotation when readers are searching for books. An author still has to stand in line, though, behind the books that are advertised on Amazon. If you type “viral pandemic novel” in the Amazon search box, you don’t see my Viral Times. Well, you don’t see it after eight pages of search results.

If an author wants to use Kindle Select, it’s easier as a first move. You launch the book at Amazon. You don’t have to list it anywhere else, because it’s brand-new and exclusive.

If you go Select as your second strategy, it can be hard to pull a book out of distribution at all the other sales outlets. It’s especially hard if you have hired an aggregator to get your book into all those online stores. Aggregators are popular. For a lot of self-published authors, if they’re being sold anywhere else, managing all those other outlets manually can be time-consuming. Leaving the management up to the aggregator can mean it’ll take weeks to get your book off the non-Amazon sites.

Here’s an article on the struggle to get a book off of non-Amazon outets.

You sometimes have to fight to get your book out of a non-Amazon store — which is required if the book will become Amazon-exclusive. Smashwords used to distribute author books to a store in India, Flipkart. Authors learned that Flipkart never pulls books off of its lists. Amazon refused to let those authors get into Select, because their books were locked onto Flipkart.

The only way to fix the Smashwords problem? Smashwords had to quit Flipkart completely.

You can never tell how an online retailer will behave until they have to do something out of the ordinary. That’s the problem with using an aggregator like PublishDrive or Draft2Digital or Smashwords. They are your managers of the relationships with dozens of platforms.

What being Amazon exclusive gets an author

I have an author friend who did well with her romance in Select. She had a publisher and invested in ads. She wrote in a popular genre, one where reading many books cover to cover is a habit.

Kindle’s books can move in and out of Select status, but as I say above, it can be complicated to move them. I have client who’s in the Select program, so his book can be read in Kindle Unlimited. He’s not doing any better being exclusive to Amazon than selling direct. He hasn’t pulled his books out of Unlimited/Select, though.

I never took Viral Times into Select, and I have stayed away from Select for my memoir Stealing Home, too. It’s just that I want control — which shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows me, a fellow who’s an editor and gatekeeper at heart. My views on listing a book as a Select title might change, but I’ll need better evidence that Select/Unlimited makes a difference.

Sales strategies come and go, after all. Books can return for sale on an online app like Rathe. Maybe that’s after an author has tried the exclusive KDP Select — and learned there’s still no substitute for advertising a book on Amazon.

Whenever you refuse Amazon’s exclusivity in KDP Select, you’re “going wide.” The same thing occurs in audiobooks, where you can publish through (Amazon’s) Audible exclusively. An author makes more per sale at Audible that way. You can’t buy the ebook or the audiobook anywhere else, though.

Just like selling ebooks, Audible commands a much larger share than other audiobook sellers. Amazon’s lead is not as big in the books market, though. Not everybody is reading from Amazon. Amazon certainly doesn’t know a thing about apps compensating authors by the episode consumed in the micro-reading of books.

Libraries and the future

Like everybody, I’m looking over my shoulder at library borrowing. It’s completely free for a reader, and great books are available there. Bestsellers. Also self-published books like Viral Times, or the audiobook for Stealing Home. (There’s a trick to getting those books through most libraries. You must have a free Hoopla account that ties to your library account. You get four borrows per month.)

Hoopla used to be Midwest Tape, a service that made books on tape available to libraries. A library has to purchase a copy of my memoir to offer it in their collection. It’s either got a one-copy-at-a-time license, or it uses a pay-by-the-reader license. Those second licenses are a lot more expensive for a library, so they usually buy a limited number of the single-reader books.

My ebook for Stealing Home is in these libraries. A library catalog called WorldCat has it listed at libraries in Dallas, North Dakota, and Alaska. Because Kobo distributes my memoir, it goes to OverDrive. And so my memoir can be checked out. You can also get it from your library by using Hoopla, another app that ties to your library account.

Viral Times has got a very special place at Rathe, an app that lets you read books 650 words at a time. The platform is the only other place besides Amazon where you can buy my book. I’m not in the Kindle Select program. At Amazon, I sell by the book, and I can sell elsewhere, too. The paperback hasn’t sold in a very long time. Maybe that will change — I just got my first Amazon order for a paperback sale in more than five years.

There’s a catch, of course, when you sell a paperback like I chose to do with Viral Times.

Viral Times isn’t print on demand. I have a couple of boxes here at the house that I got printed in 2012. There was no print on demand in 2012. I wrap a book and send it through FedEx Ground to get it to an Amazon warehouse. Amazon pays me $4 for this book. You can guess how much it costs to send it through FedEx, or even USPS. It’s more than $4. You need a tracking number, or Amazon can claim they’ve lost it.

Distribution — which amounts to outlets for sales, and sometimes the selling, too — is the trickiest part of the publishing adventure. Listing a book on a website is only wholesaling; there’s little effort to drive sales to the site, unless your email practices are strong.

Discovery by a reader while they’re already at Amazon is different today. Amazon has tilted the tables toward vendors and authors who advertise. Amazon used to let authors believe in organic discovery. Then Amazon started to sell ads, then made up Unlimited, and now there’s no substitute for buying ads for a book that’s in Unlimited at Amazon. Even that doesn’t work so well. Ad purchases can amount to big fees for clicks onto a book’s listing, but few sales.

The options to make ebook sales have their limits. It’s better if you know them coming in. A good article on the website Just Publishing Advice lays out the pros and cons of Select versus regular sales of Kindle books.

Let’s get real about self-publishing

I used to be an ardent fan of self publishing. I thought that the extra money you’d get out of making your own business choices, along with bigger royalties, would offset the extra work of publishing yourself. You could be rewarded with sales because no one cares as often about your book (every day) or as much as you do.

Then I self-published nonfiction. Books like my Stealing Home can be easier to sell than fiction, especially since mine’s about Little League baseball and fatherhood. But mine also has an art component. Out of all of the nonfiction created, memoirs have the greatest amount of art. My nonfiction book has plenty of dramatic scenes. Good memoirs can get away with that level of entertainment.

Self-publishing meant more than just hiring good editors and coaches, or getting a great cover on the front of a book that has no typos inside. It meant getting good reviews, then finding a way to get publicity for the book. Making choices about contests to enter (not free) and the shows to exhibit at (ditto). It meant discovering that bookstores are a lot less likely to stock your book for sale if you have only yourself and your plans to market it. They want customers coming into the store who have heard about your book before they discover it on the shelves. Two kinds of bookstore customers: those who come to discover and those seeking a particular book. The latter will buy more often, so long as the book is for sale on the shelves.

Bookstores might only represent one-third of all books sold by now. When was the last time you bought a book inside a store? Bookstore sales have prestige, but that prestige will not get your books sold. Once you’re for sale in a store, your results are tracked by Bookscan. That’s a grade card, the kind of measure that will keep publishers from investing extra money after your release as well as following through on promises to market more. It can prevent booksellers from re-ordering, too, or hanging on to your books for months instead of weeks.

Now when authors ask me about self-publishing, I reply, “How much do you like marketing and publicity?” By publishing yourself, you sign up for all of that work. If you’re a good writer but have not done marketing before, you need to polish a new voice.

I advise the authors to have a publicist lined up for their book release. It’s a major cost with a questionable return. That’s earned media. Paid media is advertising. The ads for Amazon are a huge gamble. You bid for a keyword and Amazon charges you Per Click. Not Per Sale. You only win the bid with a higher figure. Facebook can drive readers to your website, or to the Amazon page. The latter destination offers the readers 8-20 other things to buy at the same time they’re judging your product.

There are no perfect answers out there for the dilemma of getting a book noticed, discovered, read, and recommended. The publishers do their best, but they often approach the task with too few resources to well-support every author in their list. Us writers and teachers approach our work as communicators and storytellers. The extra layer we hope to reach is commercial success. It’s a different and difficult victory to win the sale. We keep creating and invest in professional help, just like the publishers do.

Mike Shatzkin, who’s a genius at understanding publishing, wrote a column about how most publishing these days is produced by freelancers. If you know what you’re doing, you can hire these pros, too. Right down the line, until you make your way to the distribution (sales) gateway. If your pros have done the needed work, you’ll pass through. At that point, you’re more traditionally published than self-published. Self-publishing gives you more control — and puts the commercial risks in your hands, too.

You could start your own press. With enough money.

Last year, an entity called Skin Horse Press grew up in my office here in Austin. I chose the name of this independent imprint based on a favorite book, The Velveteen Rabbit, as well as a nod toward my spot in a writing career. I’m 40 years in on my professional writing and editing, so that means I’m past 60. In the book, the Skin Horse is old and wise and tells the Rabbit that you become Real when you’re old.

I’d like to believe I’m becoming Real at my age. Skin Horse Press, though, is not a real press yet. It takes a lot more than 40 years of publishing experience and unbridled ambition to start a press. It takes the talent and drive of other pros, as well as money.

The more of these you have, the better chance your ambition grows into a press. You only have to self-publish a book professionally to see how a press gives a book a wider audience.

Distribution and wholesaling are the steepest parts of the publishing ladder. A publisher trusts other companies to sell the books that are published. Not list them, like Amazon and a raft of other places do. Not stock them, like a bookstore may do if you get a consignment space. Distributors sell your book by getting book buyers in retail stores to pay attention to the book’s goodness.

The buyers look for a press, a catalog, and finally a familiar voice that assures them they won’t be wasting their shelf space. The need for retailing space is being debated now, but even Amazon prefers books from real presses. The presses get real with advertising and marketing plans, plus budget to back them up.

There’s a need for more presses. This month a Big Book got in trouble because an Anglo author wrote the experience of a Latina in a novel. The Latino community, amplified by other hovering social media readers, cried foul. That Big Book, Dirt, got a big advance for its author. The big advances come from the big presses, known as the Big Five. They’re all headquartered in New York and they’re not much good at taking chances on under-represented authors.

They try, but then an Anglo author gets a big advance for a Latino story in Mexico and people cry foul. To be accurate, the author of Dirt is part Latina, and so it gets more complicated from there.

So why not start a press to help correct this? This morning I read a letter from a Midwest publisher, far outside the New York orbit.  She said, “Want to have more diverse voices included in books, and tilt publishing away from NYC, which is too expensive to live in anyway? You could… start your own press! To amplify overlooked voices! It’s been done ;)”

Yes, indeed, presses have been started for such noble and needed reasons. Just be aware, if you have such a dream, what goes into creating a press. It’s an entity that has several masters to serve at once. The authors, who create the magic. The readers, who supply the revenue. The founders, who need to be paid, and to pay their talent at the press.

The best list of what goes into a fine press — although it’s a long study, with too much detail — is the latest book from Microcosm Press. Joe Biel founded that indie press and has written The People’s Guide to Publishing. From Title Development to Money, the 14 sections of the book cover everything a publisher must consider. There’s much more under the surface of book publishing than might be apparent to an author. Some editors know how much, and every agent knows the pieces, too.

A press is a business. Nobody has to explain that businesses require talent and money to succeed. The drive and mission is important, too. Those first two very real elements determine which press is going to sell books, and which ones will only create them.

I want a great cover. What is that, anyway?

Everybody wants a great cover on their book. That’s a few things at once, the greatness.

Sales.

Storytelling.

Beauty.

Creating a cover concept meets one or more of those needs. If the cover does none of those things well, you won’t know until the book goes on sale, or when your novel is considered for review coverage, or when it gets its shot to be stocked in a retail store, or selected for the email promotion you’ve applied for. (Yes, the best promotions have a waiting list.)

See all the things a cover does? It’s even more complex when you factor in your writing style, genre, and subject. What you don’t want to do while building a cover, though, is to mistake whatever you’ve written for the cover your book needs and deserves. Your writing might be powerful, but your writing doesn’t have to capture a reader in five seconds. A good cover must do that.

Your publisher — whether it’s you, or a company that’s paying you to publish your book — will be constrained by cover budget. Good covers start around $450. Great covers can be as expensive as $2,500. Covers come from cover designers, people who can Do This All Day, this cover magic. Cover designers won’t say, “Well, that’s good enough, isn’t it?”

It’s not difficult to see the difference, side by side.

Both books won notable awards for literary fiction. One had an independent self-publisher. The other was built for the Literary Industrial Complex, where sales and buzz matter most.

Book covers are a matter of taste, and they’re also something that calls authors to the ramparts to battle over. Not That Cover is an argument often made by an author. “It misrepresents my story,” the author might say. The publishing pros can retort, “Yes, you think it does. But it also makes readers stop and consider it. It’s beautiful. And it doesn’t make the mistake of being so abstract it can’t tell any story, or so specific that it acts like a table of contents or a synopsis.”

Those are not the things a great cover is supposed to do. Essence is the element you want to capture. Worst of all might be the kind of cover that does that abstraction mistake, plus telling a story in so much detail it’s mysterious.

My own, self-designed cover from my debut novel Viral Times did that.

“See, the icon at the bottom indicates the SexNet, where the virtual hook-ups happen. The icon on the top right is the virus that gets transmitted over that network. The green area represents health using natural cures for virus infections. The orange represents the toxic nature of the Mighty Hand virus.”

Or something like that. You don’t get to explain your cover. It’s supposed to captivate and express emotion.

My re-do (circa 2015) is still a DIY, even though I designed for print for more than 30 years. It’s got its problems, the biggest one being that it relies on a photo image. Photos are not in vogue today.

At least you can see a person in some danger there. I’m letting the title do all the rest of the work. Still, not a pro cover. I hired out for the next book’s cover and got a great job for good value. It’s nonfiction, though, and it behaves by different rules. You must still be subtle in a nonfiction book. Sometimes you get lucky and there’s a story theme that makes itself obvious to everyone. At other times, the visual theme is the star itself.

I’m proud of the Stealing Home memoir cover that I hired Asya Blue to create. I got comps (different ideas to consider) from her — plus so much input on her tuning of the art.  Yes, it’s art, to build a cover. Because I self-published, I was the ultimate decision-maker. I needed that, but you may not. Whatever that cover does is ultimately my call. Or as generous artists sometimes say after a collaboration, “Whatever’s not working is my fault. The best stuff came from the others.”

Hire a pro and set your cover expectations higher. Engage with someone who can Do This All Day, because they have, and for years.

Writing contests: what to watch as you enter

Authors need validation from the outside. It can be as simple as getting a friend or a loved one to read and praise the early writing, or as complex as following a 2,700-word instruction manual for submitting a 7,500-word entry in a contest. Many steps lie between those extremes.

Above them all are the ultimate competitions: grants and prizes. A National Endowment for the Arts grant for creative writing isn’t a writing contest. NEA status and Pulitzer honors are the platinum standard for author validation. Publishers nominate their books for prizes in this category.

We can all dream of a Nobel Prize, or we did until Bob Dylan got his — somewhat earlier in his literature career than Ernest Hemingway did. Aim your book’s entries at prizes where you have a fair chance at winning.

Steer clear of this

There are contest awards that don’t need a $35-$95 entry fee; or insist on publication rights for an anthology for which the author is uncompensated; or demand that entries are never before seen on any Web site — even a personal blog. Some contests don’t suggest that you have “a disinterested party” review your grammar or spelling before you submit.

Some contests are not operated by a volunteer bookstore which hosts an annual event built around awarding nine prizes. Some contests don’t operate with four rounds of anonymous judging before agents decide who’s the winner. Nearly all contests do not require the winners to be present to win, like some kind of sweepstakes or bingo prize.

How do you avoid all of that mess, the spine of the Faulkner-Wisdom contest?  You commit to a handful of promises to yourself.

Keep your entry fees reasonable. As an author, you’re working with a limited budget, unless you’re already won a grant or have a book that’s earning well. Entry fees above $100 are outrageous and not common, but you can easily spend $75 getting a book that’s been published considered by commercial ventures. Magazine and journals like to run contests to raise their profile and raise funds. They also raise the experience level of their readers or judges, most of whom are uncompensated.

Two book contests for self-publishers, the IBPA awards called IPPYs, and the Indies, from Foreword magazine, seem to be open to first-time publishers. These contests require several printed copies to enter. The North Street Prizes are another contest for books from smaller to micro-publishers. North Street winners, in particular, are self-publishers. All three of these contests are under $100 to enter.

Few contests will take less than $35 for an entry. Automatic entry into contests by way of a purchase, like for review services or self-publishing work, might be worth whatever you pay extra for it.

Fees are like the grease around an auto motor: everywhere by now, and essential. Unlike fees to submit for publication, contest fees reward a small number of winners. Getting published in a journal is an opportunity that’s only limited by the appetites of editors. Only one half of one percent of entries at Faulkner-Wisdom earned a prize for unpublished manuscripts.

More than 400 entries poured in for the Faulkner-Wisdom contest — which by the way, is different from the PEN/Faulkner award. The contest reports that 158 made it to the second of four rounds. Nine got onto a short list. Short lists are worthwhile as validation and as a publication credential.

Keep an eye out for how the fee money relates to the prize. More than$12,000 dollars was collected in 2018 at the Faulkner-Wisdom contest for novel entries alone. It’s being spent to cover “some of the administrative costs of the competition, including deliveries to preliminary readers and judges; travel and housing expenses for out-of-town winners and judges; and gold medals awarded to winners.”

It looks like one author winning that award gets $500 in travel expenses, plus a gold medal. That’s a lot of money collected for the reading the novel entries, plus the administration, unless that’s a heavy gold medal. The real weight, of course, is for the nine writers who get to report they were shortlisted.

Watch out for the rigor of instructions. A vast set of forms and authentications lies in front of an NEA grant. A colleague with 50 years of poetry and advertising experience told me he earned one “by just keeping on filling out forms” and submitting his previously published prose. When you see warnings about not submitting by fax, or reducing a prize award for self-published books edited by professional freelancers, or explicit instructions on naming a file, consider how much time you should spend on the administrative creation process.

A modern contest should be able to take your book in a reasonable format, through a website or as an attachment, without cautions about submitting entries where any prior editing can be viewed on the pages. Yes, there are instructions at Faulkner-Wisdom like “don’t send your entries with the edits visible.”

Look for a competent round up. Free and paid contests are archived in several useful places. A searchable database of free contests is at the Winning Writers website. They want to collect an email address, to send an infrequent newsletter, to get access to a big, meaty list with commentary.

Reedsy, a publishing services company, also operates a database of contests. Again, it’s searchable with multiple categories, including a ranking of worthiness.

Many major book awards are announced in the final two months of each calendar year. Nearly all of them require a publication contract of some kind to be considered. The publicity department at your publisher should have a plan ready for submitting your book for major prizes. Booklist, the library industry publication that reviews books from traditional publishers, has a comprehensive list of the major awards on its website.

Image by klimkin from Pixabay

Choosing Amazon to unleash your books

Printing pressPhoto by Bank Phrom on Unsplash

It’s the start of production season for an author whose book I’ve just edited. His collection of essays will be in print and might become a hardback, too. It’s time for him to consider how he will manufacture his self-published indie book. I’m not calling what we’re doing publishing yet, because the plans for marketing, sales, and publicity aren’t set yet. The first job is to manufacture the book, including the writing and editing, design, and printing.

Amazon now wants the business of creating paperbacks for sale in its online retail store. Author copies, useful for sales to consignment booksellers like Austin’s Bookpeople, can be purchased for the cost of printing from Amazon. As you might imagine, selling a book that’s printed by Amazon makes the paperback available on Amazon.com sooner than through other methods like IngramSpark. Readers buying paperbacks can sometimes be in a hurry.

Once your manuscript has been edited and proofed (two separate steps) you’re ready to start the production process. Kindle and ebooks are easiest to make, and both Barnes and Noble as well as Amazon’s KDP have online tools to do the formatting for ebooks.

If you’d like to know what your book will look like on an e-reader, you don’t even have to submit it for Amazon production. Kindle will accept Word files and format them for reading on pads and Kindles. Email the Word file (.doc or .docx) to your Kindle email address of your account. Then you can look at the work in progress as if it’s a book. Free — and this is a powerful tool to use in development editing, workshopping, or being a beta reader.

Amazon has good pages on how to produce a printed book through their services. They’ve got free software and videos. People have strong feelings about the Zon, but at the end of the day they’re a book retailer who wants titles to sell and use for data collection and promotion purposes. Everything you sell or offer on Amazon is tracked, and some of that data is used to help sell other books, too. It’s just the way the Zon does business.

Getting your books up for sale on the Zon is essential, unless you’re ready to hire your own sales reps and ship out books after you process orders. It’s not your only sales outlet, just the biggest one.