A novel experience (part 2)

In case you’d forgotten, I left you last time at the point where I had three finished novels and nothing to do with them. They needed to get published, and there was no one to do it for me, so I decided to do it for myself.

When I first started getting my poems accepted into journals and anthologies, and I was looking to publish a full collection, the idea of self-publication was a very big no-no. It was vanity publishing, and it was a way of massaging your ego while paying through the nose for the privilege. The old argument was, if your poems are good enough to get published, someone will publish them. If not, they shouldn’t be published. It was fine if you wanted some nicely-bound edition to give away to friends and family, but anything more than this was just deceiving yourself.

Fortunately, things are very different now. Home computing, dedicated websites, specialist software and the emergence of the ebook have all meant that anyone who wants to publish their work can do so relatively easily and relatively cheaply. Which is not to say they can necessarily do it successfully, just that they can do it. Making money from publishing a book is still difficult and, in some ways, even more difficult now, simply because it’s so easy to do that so many more people are doing it and the level of competition is huge.

And if you want to self-publish properly, you have to be so much more than a writer. You have to be your own editor, designer, publisher, publicist, distributor, accountant… To do any of these jobs well is difficult, to do all of them well is all-but impossible.

But I do like a challenge.

So towards the back end of 2019 I began my journey. And the first thing I needed was to find someone who knew what they were doing to help me out. There are many companies offering publishing services; some are little more than printers, who will take whatever you send them and turn it into a physical (or digital) product. Others are our old friends, the vanity publishers, who will happily take a large amount of your money in return for producing that bespoke edition of your work and then deliver several hundred of them to you and that’s that – everything else is up to you. Others are genuine publishers, who simply can’t afford to take the financial risk of publishing your work on their own, but will happily trade their experience, expertise and mailing list for your money. Some will share the costs equally, others will require you to pay most of them.

I chose a company called York Publishing Services, who are recommended by the Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook, but who also came with a person recommendation. They offered a whole range of services from which I could pick and choose to suit my own needs. If I’d wanted, they would literally have done everything for me short of actually write the novels in the first place or, alternatively, I could do everything myself and simply use them as a printer to produce the end result. In the end, I went for somewhere in between, and this is how it went…

I sent them the three novels as docx files, and then forgot about them for a few weeks. They then came back to me as first proofs, which needed proofreading. At this stage I could still make changes if I wanted, or needed to, but it’s really worth going through the original versions and doing this stuff before you send them off in the first place – partly for cost reasons, because the more you change, the more the cost is likely to go up, but also because it’s time-consuming and can be confusing. I did make some changes, but only for very minor details which I realised were not consistent across the three novels. For example, at some earlier point I had taken the decision to change all my distances from miles to kilometres, and there were times when the old measurements had slipped through. And sometimes there were sentences that read awkwardly that I felt I couldn’t leave as they were. But that’s all. I didn’t rewrite entire paragraphs, are introduce new characters or anything like that, so if you suspect you might want to do that, I suggest you do it before you decide to publish.

Very soon after I sent off the corrected first drafts, they came back as final drafts and I had to reread them. It’s tempting to just search for the corrections and make sure they were made, but I would strongly advise going through the entire manuscript as carefully as possible at each stage as there will always be things you missed. Of course, you don’t have to do this yourself. York Publishing would have done it for me if I’d wanted them to (and if I’d paid for it) but seeing as I was, at one point, a professional proofreader, I decided I could probably do a good enough job of it myself.

And now a word of warning. Proofreading is hard, and time-consuming, and really, really tedious. You’re reading something word by word, comma by comma, checking the spelling of words you know how to spell, just to make sure you got it right. Often you have to reread sections several times to make sure it’s all correct. And when you do come across mistakes, you have to know how to correct them, and how to signal those corrections to your publisher so that they know what to do. So it’s a hard, slow process. And I was trying to do three novels at the same time. Together, the three of them total about a quarter of a million words, and I ended up reading the entire trilogy – at a snail’s pace – four times.

While all this is going on, there were some other small details to take care of. The first is that in order for your books to be made available on sites like Amazon after publication, you need to have an ISBN. Getting one (or three) is a fairly straightforward process, but you have to do it, and pay for it, and this is where using someone like YPS has its advantages. They do this a lot and can do it much more easily and efficiently than you can.

The other thing you need to get working on is your cover. If you want your book to do well, you need it to have a good cover. Design is important – not just the front cover picture, but all the other details as well; the font for the title, the layout, the blurb on the back, the details on the spine, the cover price, etc. Again, YPS will do all of this for you if you want them to. They do it a lot, and know the kinds of things that work and also the things that really don’t. But again, me being me, I decided I wanted to do things myself.

I had already come up with a basic concept for the covers. I didn’t like the idea of going with a photo as the basis for the cover image, preferring something that was more of a design or abstract image. The original idea was to use the cover of each novel to depict the action of the story, using colour blocks to represent the locations and having connecting lines to represent the journeys the characters go on. I tried it, but it just looked messy and confusing, so I went for a more streamlined version, using simple 2-D circles to represent the planets (and a series of connected hexagons to represent a space station for the second novel) and using the planets’ relative sizes and positions to give some indication of where the action was going to take place.

And with that as a base, YPS then came up with finished versions of the covers. They replaced the font I’d chosen for one that looked slightly more science-fictiony, and they made the three spines different colours, rather than the plain black I had imagined.

Once the covers were confirmed and the final proofs returned, I was sent mock-ups of the finished products. This was really exciting, because for the first time I got to have some idea of what the end result was going to look like. They were proper books, full of my very own words, and that was the point at which I started to feel like a published author. But they still needed proofreading again. Even at this stage you have to check to make sure all the corrections have been made, and it’s never too late to find that odd little error that has eluded your best efforts to find it up till then.

And then it’s done. You sign off on the mock-ups, tell them how many copies you want and wait for the boxes to arrive.

But of course that’s not really it at all, because there’s still the small issue of distribution, marketing, sales, publicity, etc. YPS will do any or all of these things for you if you want them to. They charge, of course, but it’s really up to you, and at this point it would be rather foolish and somewhat counter-productive to do without their services. With very little effort they can get your books listed on Amazon (and various ebook sites like Kindle for the digital versions). They will send copies to the copyright libraries for you (which is a legal requirement and a bit of a pain to have to do yourself) and perhaps most importantly, they will deal with all sales via Amazon or via their own online bookshop, so you don’t need to spend your time packaging up copies of your books and lugging them to the post office every week.

Publicity is a very different matter. If you want to sell hundreds of copies of your books, have them available in physical bookshops and spend your time advertising and marketing them, then you can. Some people love this and are very good at it. I don’t, and I’m not. But knowing this in advance meant that I didn’t get carried away and print a thousand copies of each novel and end up with them cluttering up the house for ever more. I went for a very low print run, assuming that most of my sales will be digital and most of my physical sales will be to friends and family. If things turn out differently and there’s some huge and unexpected demand for my novels, I can always do a second print run.

And when all is said and done, I didn’t publish the novels to make money. I published them because they were just sitting there on the shelf and they deserved more than that. Obviously I’m biassed, but I truly believe they’re great novels and they will bring a lot of pleasure and excitement to anyone who reads them. I think they’re definitely good enough to have been published by one of the big traditional publishers, but they weren’t. Maybe they will be one day, or maybe not. But in the meantime, I’m happy with what I’ve achieved, I’m proud of what I achieved, and now I can move on to bigger and better things.

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