Adventures in Self-Publishing: All The Mistakes I’ve Made (So Far)

In which I tell you all about the mistakes I’ve made, so you don’t make them yourself if you decide to self-publish your own book. It’s a very long blog post. (If you’re not interested in the technical details of self-publishing, I recommend you skip to the end of the post. Or read another blog post instead. For example, here’s a post about scones.)

Self-publishing a book for the first time involves a very steep learning curve. If you choose to do it, you have to accept that you’ll bungle some things. The good news is that you’ll probably be able to fix your mistakes, although that could involve a fair bit of effort and/or money. But keep in mind that traditional publishing houses, with their vast teams of highly-experienced staff, also make mistakes, ranging from putting out books riddled with typos (looking at you, Gollancz), to having to change an offensive book cover due to public outcry, to being fined tens of thousands of dollars for publishing a ‘non-fiction’ book full of obviously fictitious claims.

I found the editing and cover design stages of publishing Dr Huxley’s Bequest pretty straightforward, probably because I’d had experience in these areas through my traditionally-published books. I’d then planned to ‘typeset’ the book myself, using a template. ‘Typesetting’, in the digital age, means turning the edited manuscript into a pdf, with the print arranged as it is in printed books, with a title page, chapter headings, page numbers, appropriately-sized margins and so on. This wasn’t something I’d done before so I’d need to learn a lot first. However, I really wanted the book out by the end of the year and I was getting closer to my planned publication date. Also, the book had illustrations and an index, which I thought would complicate matters. I figured it would be easier and quicker to pay a professional book designer to do it and that’s where I made my first mistake.

There are two options if you want to contract out this sort of work: large companies that specialise in all aspects of self-publishing, from editing to marketing, and freelance graphic designers. I began by looking for a local freelance book designer, but lots of them preferred not to work with self-publishers or else they claimed on their website that they welcomed self-publishers, then didn’t answer my emails asking them for a quote. One book designer with lots of relevant experience sent a quote and agreed to do the work, then didn’t respond to my subsequent emails (she did eventually email a month later to say she was ready to start work, after I’d already found someone else). Grrr. (I should point out here that all the editors I approached for quotes responded within 24 hours. What is it with designers?)

Anyway, with my publication date looming, I turned to the big companies that specialise in assisting self-publishers. I’m generalising here, but most of them exist to make money from first-time authors with no publishing experience. And there’s nothing wrong with that! These companies are providing a service that’s very useful to many new authors, but they do charge a lot of money for things that these authors could easily do for themselves. For example, it takes about fifteen minutes to apply online for a pre-publication National Library of Australia cataloging number (which you’ll need if you want your book to be stocked in libraries and appear on the National Library database). This is completely free of charge, but self-publishing companies will charge upwards from $100 to do this for you. Again, that’s fine, especially if the first-time author doesn’t know anything about the National Library and needs a lot of support at every stage of the self-publishing process, but all I wanted was someone to turn my Word document into a print-ready pdf and format it for ebook publication.

One thing I will say about these big self-publication-service companies is that they have informative websites and they respond immediately to queries. I decided to go with the only Australian company recommended by Ingram Spark (the printer/distributor I planned to use). The staff at this particular self-publishing company were always polite and responded quickly by email and phone to sort out the problems (oh, so many problems) that arose. Also, I got a discount on Ingram Spark fees through them. However, there were major issues from the start. I’d explained what I needed over the phone – someone to format my manuscript for print-on-demand and ebooks – and they assured me they could do that and the finished product would look just like my traditionally-published books. But when their quote arrived, it was twenty-one pages long(!), full of expensive options I didn’t want (such as a thousand-dollar ‘book coaching’ package) as well as ‘free gifts’ that were worthless to me – and the quote didn’t include ebook formatting, which I’d specifically requested.

We sorted that out and I got started with a designer who had ‘ten years experience with [major Australian publisher]’. He sent me three chapter samples so I could choose the font I wanted. Two of the samples were inappropriate for this type of book; the third was okay, but the font seemed a bit on the small side. I figured the designer knew what he was doing with font size, though, so I didn’t interrogate him about it (BIG MISTAKE). In any case, I was distracted by all the other problems, the major one being the end-of-line hyphenation. There were hyphens all over the place, in the most ridiculous places, which made it difficult to read the text smoothly. For instance, single-syllable words like there’ll (which shouldn’t be hyphenated at all) were hyphenated as the – re’ll. Compound words weren’t hyphenated between the component words, so a word like courtyard was broken up as cour-tyard. They told me that this was how books were printed these days (no, they’re really not) and that if I wanted words at the end of lines hyphenated in my required (that is, normal, conventional) way, it would have to be done manually (I later found out this was untrue) and I would be charged per hyphen.

Then when the first-pages proofs arrived, they were a mess. There were sentences and paragraphs missing, illustrations placed upside-down, chapter headers in the wrong places, and of course, there were all those hyphens I had to check and correct. Once that was fixed, I manually located all the page numbers for the index, the index was added to the back of the file, and we went through the whole proofreading process again. Then it was time to turn the book into ebook files, which involves stripping out all the print formatting (including hyphens at the end of lines) so the text is ‘reflowable’ and can be read on any reading device, with the reader choosing the font and size. Of course, they’d only removed about half the hyphens … This whole formatting process only took about four weeks, but was immensely frustrating. I’ve proofread all my traditionally-published books and believe me, it doesn’t have to be this stressful.

'Jove Decadent' (1899) by Ramon Casas
Portrait of the author, halfway through fifth proofread

I sent the final files off to Ingram Spark to print a sample copy, and when the first paperback copy arrived I realised, with a terrible sinking feeling, that I should have spoken up about the font size at the start because the print was just too small. The book was readable (I own books with print that size or even smaller), but I thought a larger print size would provide a more enjoyable reading experience, especially for younger readers. (An experienced book designer should have known that. But as I wasn’t an experienced designer, I hadn’t picked up on it and made them change the size.) Rather than halting the whole publishing process, which would push the publication date into the next year, I decided to release the paperback as it was, then do another edition with larger print as soon as I could.

I then did what I should have done initially and discussed it with Nada, who designed the book’s cover. (I hadn’t even considered getting her to design the book’s interior, because I thought she only worked on really complicated books with diagrams and text boxes and other fancy design features. But if I’d asked her to do the interior design, it would have cost less and would certainly have saved me a lot of stress.) She was astounded at how messy the file was but was happy to increase the font size for me, except she happened to be overseas, which would make things difficult. She gave me the contact details of a local designer she knew, who, of course, didn’t respond to my email. Neither did another designer I emailed, but I finally found Diana Murray, who did an excellent job of sorting out what she politely called “unconventional typesetting” in the print file (apparently some of it was in Spanish). She increased the font size and her hyphenation was perfect – and the new hyphens didn’t need to be done manually! As this new edition had more pages, it needed a new ISBN (that’s the thirteen-digit number on the barcode) and I had to redo the index page numbers (ugh), but finally, it was ready to be uploaded to Ingram Spark.

So, Dr Huxley’s Bequest now has a new, larger-print edition of 350 pages (compared to 270 pages for the first edition, which is now out-of-print). It will be available to buy from next week (Monday, 15 January, to be precise), in all the same places the first edition was sold, for the same price. For those nice people who bought the first edition – rejoice! You own an extremely rare first edition of Dr Huxley’s Bequest, one of less than two dozen in existence! However, if you think the print is a bit small and you (quite reasonably) don’t want to buy the second edition, then email me some proof that you purchased the first edition (for example, a scan of a receipt showing the book’s ISBN) and I’ll send you a free ebook edition in epub format, which you can read on your iPhone, Nook reader, Kobo reader or other ebook reading device (unfortunately I can’t send you a free ebook in Kindle format, for Amazonian reasons).

Oh, and the other big mistake I made was setting a publication date in mid-November, just before the whole of Australia goes on summer holidays. This was a ridiculous time to start doing marketing and publicity (so I haven’t done any of that yet) and it made the process of issuing a new edition extra-difficult because Ingram Spark pretty much closes down in December. So, hooray for me, again. I’ll do a post about marketing and publicity once I’ve figured out how to do it.

In conclusion, here’s my advice for other self-publishers:

– allow loads of time for each stage of the process. The more stressed you are about looming deadlines, the more likely it is you’ll make unwise decisions.
– if you’re contracting out work, use someone who’s been personally recommended to you. At the very least, they should belong to an appropriate professional association.
– if you’re worried that something’s not quite right, speak up straight away! Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions and make (polite) demands. You’re paying and you’re entitled to professional service.
– sometimes it’s better just to do things yourself. It’s certainly cheaper and you’ll learn a lot of useful skills along the way.

Feel free to ask questions in the comments if you want my ‘expert’ advice on self-publishing. (Well, I do have a lot of expertise in making mistakes…)

Previously in Adventures in Self-Publishing:

Why Self-Publish?
What’s This Book About, Anyway?
Editing
To Tweet Or Not To Tweet
Designing a Book Cover
Turning Your Manuscript Into A Book

10 thoughts on “Adventures in Self-Publishing: All The Mistakes I’ve Made (So Far)”

  1. Blimey! It all sounds incredibly stressful. Congratulations on getting to the finish line with such a brilliant final product. So frustrating when you’re relying on others’ expertise and they let you down. Grr indeed.

  2. So now I’m the proud owner of an extremely rare first edition! It’s wonderful, Michelle. You explained the science brilliantly, the girls are funny and clever, and the book is full of wit and charm. Congratulations!
    I’m looking forward to my next poke around the uni!

    1. Thank you very much, Pip – I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed it! (And I’d be happy to send you an ebook version if the print was a bit small and you’re planning to re-read.)

      I just heard that as part of the uni’s big ongoing building project, they’ve demolished the Blackburn Building. That lovely Art Deco foyer is gone! I hope someone managed to save the heads of Harvey and Pasteur.

  3. I’m only partway through my copy – which I’m enjoying very much so far – and I hadn’t noticed that the font was small – until I read your comments and then I thought oh yes, it does seem a bit small compared to most childrens’ / YA fiction. Whenever I look at the old paperbacks from my childhood I’m astonished at how tiny the print is and I suspect most modern children would be put off by the sheer numbers of words on the page. Modern childrens’ books have to be doorstep thick because they only fit about twelve words on every page!
    Sounds like a lot of stress to get the book out there but totally worth it!

    1. La Belle Sauvage is a case in point. It’s so thick I gulped when I saw it, but it’s not actually all that long, it’s just that the print and the margins are so huge! It’s annoying because when a book’s that heavy, it makes it harder to read. (rant over)

      1. Thanks, Ann! Glad the print wasn’t too small for you and hope you enjoy the rest!

        There is a modern trend for large print and lots of white space on the page (with big margins and big spaces between lines), even for adult fiction. It’s a complicated issue and I don’t know nearly enough about it. The new edition of Dr Huxley’s Bequest is noticeably thicker than the first, but hopefully not too intimidating or heavy for younger readers. And it’s also available in ebook formats for those who want to choose font type/size without having to hold a heavy book (although I think teenagers often prefer paper books anyway, especially for illustrated non-fiction).

  4. Dear me, what an adventure! You at least have some idea for next time now. It might also be a good idea to ask someone at one of Australia’s many wonderful micro presses for advice, or successful self published writers, in case there is still something you’ve missed.

    I had a guest post some years ago from an American book cover artist, Duncan Long, about some of HIS adventures with self publishers(some work by a committee of family and friends who want everything changed multiple times). Duncan says most of his work is for self publishers these days, because there are so many of them. It’s becoming a huge industry!
    All the best for sales now! You’ve had reviews in the big trade magazines and school libraries will want it.

    1. Thanks, Sue! It was certainly a steep learning curve, but it’s been really interesting seeing the publishing industry from a different perspective.

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