When The Shack was in its heyday, we got many requests from authors about publishing their manuscripts. I wrote the following article for the Windblown Media website to help new authors think through publication options. Almost weekly I get asked about this article, so I am posting it here to make it easier for folks to find. So, if you’re not interested in writing, please ignore this one, but if you are, here is some advice that is as true today as when I wrote it.
I understand the frustrations and concerns of writers and artists looking to publish their work. The publishing industry is in great flux right now and it is harder than ever for a new writer to attract their attention without a huge platform. Most publishers require you to have an agent to represent you, but I’ve never found one helpful. Fortunately, though, the Internet has become an acquisitions editor for the publishing industry. Never before have writers had such options to inexpensively put their ideas before the public and let their audience grow organically. If you can’t find an audience for your passions and content on the web, a publisher is not going to be able to find it for you.
So let me encourage you to move ahead on your own. Don’t wait for a publisher. Hopefully what The Shack demonstrated is that just about anyone can put a book out there in this viral world and it will find its audience in time. Today, especially with new authors, it is the author that sells their own works through the contacts God has given them and the range of their own influence. We can help in that process, but we cannot be a substitute for it. Books sales and reputations best grow organically, rather than through the artificial hype of press releases and interviews.
How Can That Happen?
First, as to the writing process, follow your inner critic. Don’t stop working on a piece until it is something you would be excited to read. Read Simple and Direct, a great book on writing style, and let that shape your style. Books sell well because of two realities—compelling content and an engaging style. That can be done with humor, if it’s your gift, or by telling powerful, honest stories as a way to connect with others.
One thing we’re finding is that people love a story far more than they love a teaching book. My So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore book has outsold He Loves Me now even though I consider the latter the most significant book I’ll ever write. Why? Because it is a story. People are engaged with stories that straight teaching doesn’t tap. I’ve begun to seriously wonder if the best way to do a teaching book is to tell it as an autobiographical story, not just what I believe, but the roads that took me there. That way it can be told more horizontally than sounding like it comes from a pulpit. People are engaged by stories and they are pretty much tuned out to ‘teaching.’
I have some other ideas if you’re considering the self-published route that you can find in my article: Nine Fatal Mistakes of Self-Publishing.
Second, as to the editing process, pass your work out to your friends. Ask them to be honest and give their gut-level opinion. Demand it of them. Most will be nice and want to be encouraging. Tell them you’d like to know what they loved and what they didn’t like about the book. Rewrite and reshape the book so that the reader’s interest is captured on page one and carries them through your entire book.
Third, when you find people you know resonating with what you write, then you’re ready to post some things online to see if other readers find it helpful and if they want to pass it on to their friends. Post a few chapters online at a website whose URL has a catchy link to you or your book title. Put up some sample chapters and see if it catches a following. You can do snippets of it as a blog, or even put the whole thing on as I have done. This is the best way for anyone to begin a writing project. It involves others in what you’re doing. It begins to build an audience of interested readers, and people can pass it along to others easily.
Fourth, if there’s a growing demand, you can publish it in book form on your own. The most important factor here is to have a compelling, contemporary book cover designed by a professional. People who don’t know you will not read a book that looks like it was produced in a garage. It needs to look like a real book. Then, depending on interest and financial realities, you can print your own copies or use a Publish-On-Demand (POD) service. There are many out there. Even Amazon has a POD service that will also get you listed on their site. You won’t make much per copy, but it will get your book out there.
Then if you begin to sell a significant amount, you’ll want to print your own copies when you can afford to print at least 1500 at a time. Before you do that, however, you should have a reasonable expectation that you can sell those in about two years. Be careful. Many authors tend to be too optimistic here. Ninety percent of self-published titles do not sell more than 200 copies. So please be realistic. But if you think you have the connections to sell 1500 books you should, depending on length, be able to print them for $1.50 to $2.25 per book. Obviously, the return on a $12-$14 dollar book is substantial. You only have to sell a tenth of them to break even. You can sell them from a website and handle transactions with PayPal.
You can also join Amazon Advantage as a small publisher and have your books available on Amazon.com. Now you’re ready for the book’s readership to grow organically, which in my view is a far better way to grow than the artificial audience generated by publicity and media.
Finally, as your audience grows, you may want a publisher that can take it to the next level and save you all that time packing envelopes and printing books. Believe me, publishers are not reticent about contacting authors of self-published titles to help them with their distribution. Just realize you will be giving up a lot of income for them to do that and you will want to ensure that they will actually grow the audience and not just take the income off of your book.