Posted in Self-publishing, Writing

My 20 Top Tips on Self-Publishing at Winchester Writers’ Festival

Yesterday I was glad to have the excuse to return to the University of Winchester. After my guest lecture about self-publishing there in January, I was invited to give a quick-fire talk on the same subject as part of its prestigious Winchester Writers’ Festival. I was also available to offer one-to-one advice to delegates afterwards – a great opportunity to get know and help aspiring writers in different genres.

For my lecture, I rattled off 20 Top Tips about how to self-publish to a professional standard. To save delegates having to write them down, so they could listen instead, I promised I’d share the points on my author website here today, so here goes. I’ll be adding a further report about the Writers’ Festival later this week, once I’ve unpacked my notes and caught up on my sleep!

Debbie Young giving a talk in a lecture room
Thanks to Lorna Fergusson for snapping me in action here – I returned the favour at one of her talks later in the day

20 Top Tips for Aspiring Self-Publishers

  1. Recognise the status of self-publishing. It has had a long and respectable heritage ever since Caxton’s day, with the likes of Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf all publishing their own work at some point. You’re in good company! In any case, readers don’t care who your publisher is, as long as you’ve written a good book!
  2. Decide your goals before you begin – and then plan your self-publishing journey accordingly. What do you want to get out of it? posterity, a family heirloom, a useful “business card” in book form to help with your career, profit, or just a bit of fun? Then do it your way! You’re the boss!
  3. First, write your book! Yes, it’s fine and advisable to start planning how you’re going to market your book once you’ve published it, but always keep your writing front of mind, and protect your writing time. Without decent writing, and without finished manuscripts, the rest of the process counts for nothing.
  4. Test-drive your manuscript with beta readers. This is a great way to get constructive feedback, for free, before you start paying out for editors and production. In case you’re not familiar with this term or process, I’ve given links at the end of this article for a couple of posts on the subject that you’ll find helpful.
  5. Understand the different types of editing and identify which you need: structural, line editing, copy editing and proofreading. Find a good editor via the Alliance of Independent Authors’ partner members, or via the Society of Editors and Proofreaders. (This is a UK organisation, and you’ll be able to use their services wherever you live, but if you’re writing in non-British English, you should check out the equivalent organisation for your own region.)
  6. Be aware of the formatting differences required for print and ebooks. In summary, print books are formatted similar to Word documents, but ebooks are completely different, with flexible margins, no page breaks, and no fancy characters. You can learn to format yourself, but if subcontracting, shop around for best prices and services, get references from satisfied customers, and make sure you know what you’re committing yourself too.
  7. Name that book! Choose your title carefully, to be suitable for its genre, memorable, easy to spell and original (search Google and Amazon to make sure there aren’t dozens of books out there to play “snap” with). If it’s non-fiction, incorporate the most likely keywords and use a subtitle to give your more scope. Be ready to ditch your working title if need be.
  8. Respect the specialism of book cover design. Use a specialist to devise your cover, someone who understands book  cover conventions and essential such as being effective at thumbnail size in online retail platforms. Keep an open mind about changing your book covers as you go along to keep it looking in keeping with other books in its genre as fashions change. Even if you start out with a free cover, for budgetary reasons, consider reinvest your royalties in a more effective and professional cover later on.
  9. Write the blurb to lure in readers who will love your book. The first thing readers look at in bookshops after the cover is the blurb on the back – “the 100 hardest words you’ll ever write”, according to Ben Cameron, Director of Cameron PR. They should prepare your readers’ expectations precisely for the content of your book – and reel them in to buy it!
  10. Know your limits. For points 5-9 above, be realistic about what you can and can’t do. Treat your self-publishing like you would a domestic DIY project. Would you really install a new bathroom without having any plumbing skills? Nope, it would be a false economy – the kind that makes Kevin McCloud raise his eyebrows every time a “Grand Designs” couple declare they’ll lay their own bricks/install their own fireplace/fit their own electrics to keep costs down of their house restoration. If you can’t supply a professional finish yourself, call in the professionals.
  11. Make sure your book passes the identity parade. In a line-up of books, make sure yours isn’t the one that screams “I’m self-published” in an identity parade. A growing number of self-published books are published to traditional, big publishing house standards – make sure yours is too.
  12. Press the “publish” button at the right time. My friend and mentor Orna Ross, founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors, always says that many authors publish too soon, because it’s so easy to, using digital and print-on-demand technology. Only publish your book when you’re sure it is the best it can possibly be – and then stop tinkering with it. If you need to keep changing it, maybe you published too soon?
  13. Write another book. That’s the best piece of marketing advice an author can get – write another, and another, and another… The most books you have out there, the more visible your work will be. And if readers enjoy your first book, they’ll be ripe to be sold another. Better still, write a series – get them hooked on book 1 (at a specially low price, if you like), and watch the sequel sales grow.
  14. Ring the changes. Although you shouldn’t keep messing about with the content of the book after publication, do play around with the keywords and categories in online retail listings till you find the right ones that help you shift the most sales. As with cover designs, the metadata needs will change with fashion over time, too, so keep an eye on them.
  15. Spread your risk of success online. Don’t put all your eggs in one retail basket. Don’t focus solely on ebook or only on print – you’ll sell more books overall if you have both. Equally, put them into all the main retail outlets online – Nook, Kobo, iBooks, etc, rather than just Amazon. Although early adopters often went with only Amazon, the others are fast seizing market share, so don’t miss out.
  16. Cover of "Sell Your Books!"Market yourself, not just your book. Marketing is a huge topic that falls outside the scope of this talk, and for more on that score, read my handbook, Sell Your Books! – but apart from point 13 above, the key take-away point about marketing that I’d like to share is that when planning your marketing, include your own back story. Too many authors don’t realise that their own lives and personalities are part of their pitch – readers love to hear about authors, especially in the modern digital age, so don’t be shy! Otherwise when it comes to marketing, stick with what you’re comfortable with, and don’t try to do too much at once, or you’ll quickly get overwhelmed.
  17. Cover of "Opening Up To Indie Authors"Respect the real estate of bookshops and libraries. Contrary to rumour, bricks-and-mortar bookshops are happy to stock self-published books, provided they’re of professional standard and you can convince the bookseller that you’ll drive sales through their store (for libraries, drive loans). Think of their shelves as rental accommodation – each book needs to pay its rent by being sold on a regular basis. For more advice about how to sell your books through bookshops, read the guide I co-authored for ALLi, Opening Up To Indie Authors.
  18. Set up your own shop window online i.e. create an author website. This should be the hub of all your marketing, and the authoritative guide to your authorly pursuits. This needn’t cost the earth – a great entry point is to use the free software (I use it for mine) – you only start paying if you want to add extras such as a URL without the suffix (which I do).
  19. A writer’s website is never done! Unlike your published books, the development of a website has not deadline, nor should it. Instead, it should evolve as your writing career evolves. Build followers with an e-newsletter sign-up form, consider a blog to keep it current and lively, and keep it up to date with your book news. It’s great for fine-tuning your voice and building your writing confidence and fluency too.
  20. Associate with other successful self-published authors. Success breeds success, and the community of indie authors is extremely generous, readily sharing best practice and advice. The best way to run with the pack and to learn by osmosis is to join the Alliance of Independent Authors, whose author advice blog I edit, and which, not surprisingly, I heartily endorse! It brings together the most professional, cutting-edge self-publishers around, as well as welcoming those still starting out on their writing journey. More about how to do that here:

Last but not least, here’s a bonus point #21 – CELEBRATE! Be proud of your achievements as a self-published author, you’ve done what many only talk of doing but never achieve. You are right to be excited about your future, so stay optimistic, open-minded and opportunistic, and enjoy this heady ride.

Poster for Virginia Woold exhibitionIf you enjoyed this post, you might also like to read:

For more information about Winchester Writers’ Festival, here’s their website:

For more information about joining the Alliance of Independent Authors, visit our membership website

Posted in Reading, Self-publishing

Lightbulb Moments About Independent Booksellers and My Reading Habits

(A post about revelations that came to me when setting up my virtual bookshop on the fun new app)

Debbie Young photographed with David Ebsworth and Helen Hollick
At the launch of David Ebsworth’s “The Assassin’s Mark”, with Helen Hollick

Some time ago, after going through a phase of reading one book after another by the same few authors, I decided on two courses that would encourage me to read outside my comfort zone:

  • to read and review any books that I was offered, in particular self-published ones to support other indie authors
  • to join the local Historical Novel Society book group, having never knowingly chosen a historical novel for leisure reading

It was only when joining the new website this morning that I realised that by chance I’ve discovered a preference for a very particular type of book that I’d never articulated before.

My Independent Bookshop

This site has just been launched this month by Penguin Random House purportedly to support the dwindling supply of independent bookshops in the UK. (Of course it does no harm to Penguin Random House’s reputation, either.)

It invites you to set up your own virtual bookshop and effectively play at being a bookseller. And before my overseas friends rush to try it out for themselves, I’m afraid this looks like a UK-only initiative so far, but maybe it’ll be heading for your shores soon. After all, those Random Penguins get everywhere…

You get to design your own shop from a range of templates and then choose up to 12 books that you’d like to recommend to others, beneath your own shop sign.

The result is a very pleasing pretend shop – and who hasn’t enjoyed playing shops at some point in their life?

Celebrating Indie & Self-Published Authors

I chose to call mine “Flying Off The Shelves With Debbie Young”, to reflect my book promotion advice website, Off The Shelf Book Promotions, and I decided to stock it entirely with self-published books by indie authors – because it’s harder for them to get their books stocked in real shops, despite the very high quality of the best indie books.

I’ve driven that point home with all the subtlety of a brick through a window by adding the strapline “Top Quality Fiction by Indie and Selfpublished Authors from Around the World”. (I’d have hyphenated the “selfpublished” but the site didn’t allow hyphens – hmmm.)

You don’t actually stock or sell the books on your shelves in real life – but if any readers take up your recommendations and buy a book you’ve suggested, the real-life bricks-and-mortar store that you’ve recommended will be sent a share of the profit (the rest, presumably, being absorbed by the website’s founders).

I’ve nominated Foyles in Bristol as mine, because I’ve been to some great indie author book launches there, such as the one pictured above. It’s also where I’ll be launching my paperback edition of Coming To Terms With Type 1 Diabetes this autumn, thanks to some helpful negotiating by SilverWood Books with whom Foyles has a special working relationship – and because my own local independent bookstore, The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, which has branches in Tetbury and Nailsworth, is not yet listed on the website’s database.

Early Quirks

Two old copies of Lewis Carroll books - Alice In Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass
My antique Alice books

As with any new site fresh out of beta-testing, there are a few glitches and quirks, such as not recognising a surprising number of books. Not only did it refuse to acknowledge some self-published books, which didn’t really surprise me, but it also had apparently never heard of my favourite book: Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. That narrowed down the choice of books that I could post on my virtual shelves.

The site also asks you to list three categories that characterise your reading, so that it can list your shop alongside similar stores. Although I do read very widely, not least because I review children’s books for the parenting magazine Today’s Child and an eclectic mix of books by contributors to Vine Leaves Literary Journal, I decided to narrow the focus of my pretend shop to the three types that make up the bulk of my leisure reading: contemporary fiction, literary fiction and short stories. I therefore omitted the children’s fiction from my shelves.

Inventing My Own Genre

Once I’d added my selection of 12 of the books I’ve most enjoyed in the last little while, the site asked me to write a paragraph describing my choice of books. Only as I was searching for words that summarised my choice did I realise that the following description held true for them all:

Gripping reads by gifted storytellers who will transport you to another time and place – fulfilling reading, whether you need something to stash in your suitcase for your travels or you prefer to tour the world from the comfort of your favourite fireside chair

Some are historical novels, some are contemporary, and trade publishers would never lump them all together under the same genre. Traditional genres are far too restrictive and unbending. Historical novels, for example, are defined by the Historical Novel Society as having been written at least 50 years after the event that they describe. But even though it falls outside conventional classifications, I’m still pleased to find there is a common bond between them all: transporting me to a different time and place. That made me realise what I need to look out for in future, when I’m seeking out a new read that I’ll enjoy.

Of course, I’ll still read more widely and just as voraciously as ever – but I was intrigued to discover this new common bond between the books that I’ve most enjoyed recently.

What’s On My Bookshelves?

And now the answer to the question that I’m sure you’re dying to ask: which twelve indie authors did I choose? They are (in alphabetical order by first name):

  • Ali Bacon
  • Alison Morton
  • David Ebsworth
  • Francis Guenette
  • Helen Hollick
  • Hilary Shepherd
  • Judith Barrow
  • Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn
  • Lucienne Boyce
  • Rohan Quine
  • Sandy Osborne
My Independent Bookshop logo
The logo of My Independent Bookshop website

But if you want to know which books they are, you’ll just have to go and visit my independent bookshop! Come inside, it’s open for business here!

(And yes, that is only 11 on the list – I took the liberty of putting Sell Your Books!, one of my own books in the twelfth slot, and in the next few days I’ll ring the changes by adding Opening Up To Indie Authors, which I co-authored for ALLi with Dan Holloway.)

By the way, I was unable to find all the books I wanted to include, such as Jane Davis;s fabulous novel I Stopped Timenot yet listed on the site,  Carol Cram’s The Towers of Tuscany and Orna Ross’s Blue Mercy.  All of these books exactly match my definition above.

The Most Important Question of All

So, I’ve had a couple of hours fun playing at pretend booksellers today, and it’s given me a nice warm feeling.

But as I put up my virtual “Closed” sign for the day, I do have one niggling question. Will this site really help reverse the fortunes of our struggling high street bookshops? Or is it a cynical ploy by larger forces to give readers the feeling of helping them, while actually encouraging them to place their orders on line? After all, the cut of the sale that will be passed on to your local nominated bricks-and-mortar store will be much less than if you’d actually visited their shop and bought the book in person. I’ll be very interested to hear what the REAL independent bookstores have to say about the issue – and if the boffins behind the new site would like to reply, that would be terrific. Over to you!

  • How would you describe your favourite reading matter?
  • If you set up your own store within the site, do come back and leave a link to it in the comments – I’d love to come shopping in it!
  • And if you’re the proprietor of an independent bookstore, do you welcome or dread this initiative? Do tell!