On March 4, 2017, I attended the Kanab Writers’ Conference 3rd Annual self-publishing Seminar, held at the public library in Kanab, Utah. Five published authors (one was also an editor) crammed as much as possible into the hour each was allotted. It was overwhelming.
The first speaker, Carolyn Grygla, had published a 600 page family history, and sold a thousand copies. She found BYU press (www.printandmail.byu.edu) very helpful. Although they were more expensive than others and charged ½ the costs before printing, the product was very high quality. BYU press is the place to go for your first attempt at something like this because they do a lot of hand-holding, including working face-to-face. For successive attempts, lulu.com provides many good options, but the help is all online. Lulu will provide reprints, BYU will not, but it offers CDs for $2.
The main requirements for a good family history are numerous resources and a system for keeping track of everything. Everyone who has ever been connected with someone in your family is a potential resource. Many people keep letters, photos and other documents that may contain references to your family members. They are often happy to provide access to these materials. Be scrupulous about recording names, dates and places. Have a system set up for documenting your research. Develop a timeline (births, schools, jobs, moves, marriages, deaths) and reference your stories to it. There is a great deal of information online. Most larger communities in Utah have Family History Center where you will find helpful people to get you through the difficult parts. Actual family records like birth, death and marriage certificates are the best documents. Many of the stories you find will be from reliable sources, either from the people you are writing about or those close to them. Sometimes you will have additional documentation. But don’t discard good stories just because they come from more distant sources. Instead, explain why there is less evidence for the accuracy of these stories.
The remaining four speakers were all successful fiction writers, but Annette Lyon spoke more from her position as an editor (“getting your manuscript ready’). Janette Rallison has been making a living writing romances for many years. She compared her experiences with traditional publishers to her success using “Indie” publishers. Donna Weaver talked about covers and illustrators in general, but they all talked about that. Lindzee Armstrong provided much good advice about E-book marketing.
Although each author approached the subjects from a different point of view, they had many common experiences and they touched on each others’ subjects, so I’m covering the material by subject rather than by speaker. There was so much material that I can’t cover it all here.
Successful writers have schedules. Some may have erratic schedules due to other commitments, but they all commit to a specific amount of time that they will write, or a specific amount of material they will produce. If that has to be changed, they are conscious of it. Lindzee Armstrong keeps careful track of her work. She puts in 20 hours of writing a week and 20 hours of marketing, even more when she’s trying a new marketing technique. She keeps track of everything so that she can judge what is working.
Books can take a long time to develop if properly researched. It often takes five years (more likely eight) before a first book is ready to publish. Then it needs to be rewritten because the author’s writing skills will have improved considerably during that time.
Traditional vs. Indie
Janette Rallison and Donna Weaver have both been published by traditional publishers. This is worth a try if you are serious about a writing career, but it can be a nightmare. Be careful about what contracts you sign. You can sign your life away, lose control of your career, and gain very little from it if you are not careful. However, being published by a major publisher gives you “street cred” and an increased chance for exposure in book stores, libraries and schools. You’re eligible for awards, and they send out advance reading copies to reviewers. It gets you invitations to speak even if the publisher neglects your book. It tells people you were good enough to catch the eye of the professionals. Janette had the worst experience because her major publishing company shut down the smaller imprint that had been publishing her books, and some of her work was left in limbo. Because of the way the contract was written, there wasn’t much she could do about it. Luckily, she hadn’t sold her self into slavery, and was able to go Indie. If the advance is big enough, going traditional is worth the risk, but otherwise it’s only good as a bit of education and a means of getting your foot in the door.
Amazon gives you more control than most other avenues. You can start with an e-book. Royalties range from 30% to 70%. You control the price of the book. You control the cover. There are no confusing contracts. You control the price and promotions, and Amazon does promotions, using websites like BookBub, Instafreebie and Wattpad. You can fix errors. You set your own deadlines. You can write anything you want (They don’t force you to get stuck in a rut.). You can do an audiobook without copyright concerns. When Kindle Unlimited (an e-book “borrowing” system) lends a book, the author only gets about half a penny per rental, but, since these books are rented through a monthly fee, millions of people rent them by the hundreds, making a nice little extra cash supply.
Covers were a big topic. Because of the rise of e-marketing, a cover can easily double – or halve – the sales of a book. Donna Weaver had a series of action/romances where her publisher chose a moderately sexy, hard-ass kind of illustration for the covers. (Publishers control the covers.) The actual heroine was nothing like the cover image. Donna and some of her readers kept complaining until the publisher agreed to try a different set of covers for a new printing. Donna was happy, until sales dropped significantly. So they went back to the original covers. We had some lessons in recognizing what stands out in a cover image, so that your book appeals to the desired group of readers. Don’t try to sell sweet romances with Gothic nightmares on the cover. Try to set the tone and make the genre obvious. Create your own brand or brands. Be aware that most of your books will be sold by a small version of your cover that people see on a computer screen, or even a phone. This is true of all books, not just e-books. Make sure your cover has a readable font and decent contrast. Professional illustrators know how to design a cover that will look good in a bookstore window and still be readable in the postage stamp size of a BookBub offering. Be careful if you use stock photos. Other writers may be using the same faces, and it’s not good if buyers see the same people on both your books and theirs.
With traditional publishers, you get an editor and probably three copy editors. The copy editors are the people who catch small errors after the book is complete. The editor helps to make it a better book in the first place. The editor knows what the publisher wants, and knows what is selling. If you can’t work with a particular editor and can’t get a new one, you’re better off self-publishing. If you self-publish, you still need an editor, and some copy editors. Listen to your editor. When you read your own work, there are things inside your head that make you see it a certain way. The editor has fresh eyes and is more likely to be seeing it the way your audience will see it. If you want to try editing your own book, there is a good resource, “Self-Editing for the Fiction Writer” by King and Browne.
We finish with marketing. Only a tiny percentage of the books traditional publishers put out enjoy serious marketing efforts. They pick a set of books from their list and push them. The rest are on offer with just a brief description. If your book competes with one of their favored titles, they may even hamstring it. Marketing is basically your responsibility. Remember Lindzee and her 20 hours of writing and 20 of marketing? Lindsey works with Amazon. Everyone works with Amazon, at least for marketing. Lindzee also uses them for publishing because they don’t try to enslave their authors. The guidance they provide is all online. That takes some getting used to, but it is doable.
Editors are an expense, as are cover artists. These fiction writers all estimated that it takes a minimum of $1200 to $1500 to get a book off the ground. Having an artistic friend do the cover is a good way to lose a friend while not improving the book. Donna, Janette and Lindzee all experienced this.
I’m not going to try to explain the marketing techniques that were discussed, but it’s necessary to understand one idea. Sales are strongly affected by the number of reviews and the number of stars you get. Ask for reviews at the end of every book. There’s a standard procedure for obtaining reviews on a new book (very important). There’s a printer called CreateSpace (and others, I’m sure) that publishes cheap paperbacks in small quantities. There are services that recruit readers. About a month before your book’s launch date, create a number of paperbacks and hire a reading service. (The readers don’t get paid. That’s a no-no. Never pay readers, and don’t have the same friends and family do regular glowing reviews. Amazon frowns on this and will catch you.) The readers have agreed to review the books in two weeks. That means your book will launch with several fresh reviews and, one hopes, several stars.
The following book was also recommended: “Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence” by Lisa Cron